Conscious Experience, Existence and Behaviour

Significance of Consciousness in Human Life

By Axel Randrup
International Center for Interdisciplinary Psychiatric Research, CIRIP
Bygaden 24 B, Svog. DK-4000 Roskilde, Denmark
May 2005. Electronic publication only.



If consciousness has no influence on my behaviour, what shall I do with it ? In this paper it is contended, that even if neuroscience is right, if some conscious experiences such as emotional experiences have no influence on our behavior, they still constitute a significant part of our world, our existence. For understanding the significance of conscious experiences we should go beyond behaviour, biology and biological evolution.
This paper and its understanding of consciousness and natural science is based on an idealist philosophy maintaining, that only conscious experience is real. Conscious experience is supposed to be known directly or intuitively, it cannot be explained.

Key words: Consciousness as existence; behaviour; communication; language; free will; idealist philosophy; collective conscious experience; cognition.

Introduction. Brain and Behaviour Expressed in Idealist Philosophy

This paper is based on an idealist philosophy maintaining, that only conscious experience is real. Conscious experience is supposed to be known directly, or intuitively, it cannot be explained.

In this idealist philosophy "material objects", including human brains, are regarded as heuristic concepts constructed from selected perceptual experiences and useful for expressing these experiences with some of their mutual relations. Hence, at the bottom the brain-mind relation is seen as a relation between the perceptual experiences, from which the concept "brain" is constructed, and other experiences, e.g. emotions (Randrup 1997,1999, 2002, 2003, 2003a, 2004).

It may be objected that this idealist philosophy entails solipsism, but here I have argued that an experience, a scientific perceptual experience or concept for example, can be shared between individuals and may be regarded as one collective conscious experience. The collective experience will be associated with a group of persons as the subject, the We, and related to all the brains of this group. The brains as well as the bodies of the group are also seen as conscious experiences, partly collective and partly individual. A certain volume of new literature on collective conscious experience has appeared in the very latest years, references not given in the earlier papers by the author include: Cohen 2004, pp. 56-89; Keitel 1998; Kenny and Levi 2003-2004; Moss 1981, pp. 39, 167, 214; Motluk 2001.

It has also been objected that this idealist view is arrogant, seeming to indicate that human consciousness has created or invented the universe (comment by Dr. Faustus added to my Internet paper, Randrup 2004). Here I argue that we can influence our concepts and theories at will, but generally not the regularities and specificities characteristic of perceptions selected as scientific (Randrup 2004 with reference to Diettrich 1995) *Note 1*. Besides, to avoid the "arrogance" Dr. Faustus leans on materialist philosophy imagining a material world independant of humans. But in contemporary science the material world view comprises the contention that all our cognitions and imaginations, including the belief in a material world, depend on the human cognitive apparatus in its present stage of biological evolution (Randrup 2004). The material world in contemporary science is therefore not independant of us humans, and in this respect is like the universe in the idealist philosophy followed in this paper.

Based on the findings in neuroscience this discipline and all biology generally maintain, that processes in the brain fully determine our behaviour (Pockett 2004 with many references). In the idealist philosophy followed here this would mean that the portion of the human conscious experiences, which constitute and underlie the concept "brain", determine the experiences, which constitute and underlie the concept "behaviour", so that no influence is left to other conscious experiences such as emotional, conative, and spiritual.

Conscious Experiences, Behaviour and Existence

At the meeting "Toward a Science of Consciousness" in Prague 2003 an attending philosopher asked me: "If consciousness has no influence on my behaviour, what shall I do with it ?" I answered, that even if neuroscience is right, if some conscious experiences such as emotional experiences have no influence on our behaviour, they still have a significant role in human life. Imagine an emotion, love for instance. If we had only perceptual and conceptual experiences, following the same regularities as they do now. but no emotional experiences, we would be able to perceive and conceive of loving behaviour and underlying brain processes, and according to neuroscience all this would be the same, as we know it now. But without emotional experiences, felt emotion would not exist, and our life would be that much poorer. So even if emotional experiences are supposed to have no effect on our behaviour, they still constitute an important part of our existence, and philosophers need not worry, what to do with them. For understanding the significance of emotional conscious experiences we ought to go beyond biology and biological evolution.

If some kinds of conscious experience such as emotional experiences play no causal role for our behaviour, they can not be seen as a feature selected by biological evolution; at most they can be seen as innocent by-products of other features, as epiphenomena (Harnad 1991, p. 53, note 1; Pockett 2004, pp. 34-35). The portion of our experiences (concepts and perceptions) that constitute brain and behaviour have significance both in biological theory and as parts of our experiential existence. This distinction between different kinds of conscious experiences is in agreement with a statement about physics :"Physics is concerned with a certain portion of human experience." (Lindsay and Margenau 1949, p. 1).

Communication Between Humans. Working Method of Languages

It may be asked, that if emotional and some other experiences have no influence on our behaviour, how are we able to communicate about them? Our means of communication like talking and writing, are also behaviour, and from the assumption that the "material" world is causally closed, it follows that a dialogue about emotions will be a dialogue between brain processes corresponding to emotions, and it seems impossible for me to verbally communicate anything about the emotional experiences themselves, not even communicate whether I have such experiences or not (Harnad 1994).

But feeling an emotion seems to be accompanied, in a specific way, even if not causally, by brain processes which determine the communicative behaviour. And I think that our languages are so shaped, that hearing or reading about an emotion will elicit brain processes that are accompanied by the feeling (or memory) of this emotion (Moody 1994, p. 200 has expressed a similar idea). So even if we do not assume causal relations (either way) between felt emotions and brain processes, we can understand the process of communication.

The nexus between felt emotion and brain processes may be regarded as analogous to that between length and breadth of an object. Length does not cause breadth and breadth does not cause length, but they occur invariably together. In daily life we usually forget about our brain and tend to assume a direct causal connection between conscious experience and behaviour, bypassing the brain. Likewise neuroscientists often ignore conscious experiences. I think, however, that the available evidence indicates: in daily life I can not have conscious expperiences without some brain processes, and I can not have certain brain processes without having some conscious experiences too.

Free Will

Can we speak of free will, if the brain (or the biological organism, *Note 2*) controls behaviour according to the laws of nature, and conscious experiences such as emotional and conative experiences add nothing to this causation? I think we can.

If we think traditionally of free will, it does not mean random behaviour, but it is supposed, that I act as the person I am, and for example usually do not perform acts, that are revolting to the moral I accept. The same may be said of my brain; it will act as the brain it is. When making a choice it will choose on the basis of its whole constitution, and I believe, that making choices in this way is precisely, what is meant by free will. Similar views on choices made by the brain are expressed by Gray, who writes: "Our choices are constrained by the way the cybernetic system that is our brain is constructed, and by the environment in which we develop and function. But they are choices nonetheless" (Gray 2002, p. 51).

Parallel with these processes in the brain I have the conscious experience of exerting free will as the person I am.

It has been argued, that if we know the brain well enough, we may be able to predict the behaviour of the person, utilizing natural laws, and that would not be commensurate with the idea of free will. Such prediction would, however, require a knowledge of the brain far more extended than that available today, and I find it highly improbable, that knowledge like this will ever become available. To aquire such knowledge it would probably be necessary to make measurements interfering with the function of the brain and therefore precluding prediction of behaviour.

The limited precision of any measurement also seems to preclude precise predictions of complex systems. Experiences with the weather forecast gives a practical exemple; although science believes that the development of the weather is fully determined by permanent natural laws, predictions still suffer from imprecision (Wiin Nielsen 1987).


Note 1. Diettrich (1995) states that our perceptions contain regularities and specificities, we cannot influence, and these unchangeable features of our perceptions he denotes by the German word Wirklichkeit. In daily language this German word means nearly the same as reality, but in Diettrich's exposition reality ("materialist" reality) is seen not as something existing independantly of humans, but as a special human-made theory of Wirklichkeit.

Note 2. Considering the whole biological organism was suggested to me by S. Patlavskiy. Patlavskiy (2005) has published comprehensive treatises about interdisciplinary investigations, from which I have taken inspiration, although I do not agree with all of Patlavskiy's views.


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