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© Avi Sion, 1990 (Rev. ed. 1996) All rights reserved.

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My purpose here is to propose a consistent framework and terminology for epistemology.

1. A Relation.

2. Kinds of Consciousness.

3. The Mind.

4. Popular Psychology.

1. A Relation.

Consciousness is a specific, peculiar kind of relation between an entity like ourselves (called the Subject); and any ‘appearance’, ‘phenomenon’, ‘thing’ which presents itself to us (called the Object). One can figuratively view consciousness as a line stretching between subject and object. (Capital letters are sometimes used for these terms, to avoid confusion with the use of the same words in other contexts, note.)

Consciousness is itself, of course, a phenomenon — one very difficult to grasp and define, because it is such a fundamentally unique and distinctive part of the world. We are here merely indicating it, without presuming to know what it is much more precisely, or just how it works.

The point made here is just that it is primarily a relational phenomenon, a placid ‘seeing’; it is not itself an activity, though many activities surround it. The ‘effort’ of attention or the ‘state’ of being aware or the ‘activity’ of thought, are secondary aspects of this phenomenon, which depend on the relational definition for their understanding.

The reason why consciousness is best described as ‘a relation’, is that we cannot consistently claim that consciousness is ‘subjective’, because that claim is itself an event of consciousness which has pretensions of being ‘objective’. This means that the subject and object must be related by consciousness in such a way that neither affects the other when they are so related.

Consciousness, then, is a relation which is neither passive nor active. Consciousness cannot be said to consist of changes of or within the subject caused by the object, because such changes would not guarantee the existence of an object, let alone that the same object would always cause the same change or that different objects would never cause the same change. And consciousness cannot be said to consist in a creation by the subject of an object, because we would still have to explain how the object is apprehended once produced.

The Subject is itself also a phenomenon — again, one very difficult to grasp and define, because it is such a fundamentally unique and distinctive part of the world. We can say that it remains unaffected by consciousness or its Object. If consciousness was passive or active (as above defined), the Subject would be unable to be conscious of itself, not even hypothetically.

The Object is, note well, whatever presents itself to us, as it stands — without initial concern as to whether it is to be regarded as ‘real’ or ‘illusory’: these are later judgments about the object. The Object, likewise, remains unmoved by consciousness or by the Subject as such.

What matters here is that ultimately all consciousness is essentially observation, by someone, of something. The nature or type or source or status, of observer, consciousness, and observed, are other issues, which philosophy indeed has to discuss at length and try to resolve, but which need not concern us at this stage.

Whether the object is faced by the subject with detachment, dispassionately, objectively — or the subject is unwilling or unable to ‘distance’ himself from the object — these are attitudinal aspects, which pertain to reaction and do not affect the essentially ‘observatory’ nature of consciousness.

The existence of the object is immediately given in its appearance as a phenomenon. However we interpret what has appeared, we can be sure that something has appeared. If nothing had appeared, there would be nothing to discuss. The existences of subject and consciousness are not so obvious, a reflection of sorts is required to notice them.

Objects seem to be of various substance: some seem ‘materially concrete’ (e.g. a stone), some ‘mentally concrete’ (e.g. a dream); some seem ‘abstract’ (e.g. entropy or humaneness). Subjects are believed to be of a substance other than such material or mental entities: we view them as ‘spiritual entities’ or ‘souls’. Consciousness also seems a very special component of the world.

We sometimes label our awareness of subject and consciousness jointly as ‘self-consciousness‘. For us humans at least, that awareness seems to peripherally accompany our every cognition of other objects, if only we make a minimal effort to activate it. This direct impression is further confirmed indirectly, by observation of other apparent people and higher animals. The extrapolation from object to consciousness and subject seems obvious to us.

We know very little about what constitutes a Subject, what gives some existents the power of cognition. Judging by their behavior, humans and higher animals have it (animists believe that all things have consciousness to some degree).

One cannot postulate that consciousness is bound to be distortive, without thereby putting one’s own skeptical principle in doubt. It would not, however, be inconsistent to claim that consciousness is occasionally distortive. The power of our consciousness is evidently more or less limited; only G-d is viewed as omniscient.

2. Kinds of Consciousness.

The term consciousness is to be understood generically. In common to all kinds of consciousness, is the central fact of consciousness, seemingly always one and the same Subject-Object relation.

a. Consciousness is called by different names, with reference to the kind of phenomenon which is its object. But this does not imply that the consciousness as such as structurally different in each of its subdivisions.

Thus, we call perception, consciousness with a concrete phenomenon as its object; and conception (or conceptual insight), that with an abstract phenomenon or a phenomenon mixing concrete and abstract components.

Identification is consciousness of the identities between parts of a phenomenon or between two or more phenomena. Distinction is consciousness of the differences between parts of a phenomenon or between two or more phenomena. Since similarity and dissimilarity are in themselves abstract aspects of phenomena, such comparisons and contrasts are conceptual. These insights allow us to discern the various constituents or aspects of individual phenomena, and to classify several phenomena together or separately.

Understanding refers to consciousness of the causality (in the largest sense) of phenomena — the natural causes of material or mental phenomena as such, or the meanings or explanations of ideas. Understanding is primarily a consciousness of the order of things; it is conceptual, since causality is an abstract phenomenon. The reaction of fulfillment or satisfaction which follows such insight is secondary.

b. Consciousness is classified variously, with reference to the location in space or time of object.

Thus, we label consciousness as introspective (or inner) or extrospective (or outer), according to whether its object is placed inside or outside of us (the terms are ambiguous, depending on how much we consider as being ‘us’ — our minds, our bodies, or even our segment of society).

The objects of perception are ordinarily temporally located in the present. Direct perception of long past or future events seems impossible to us — though prophets are said to have this power. Remembering concrete events seems to be perception of present mental images of past events, rather than of the events themselves.

Conception, however, does not seem equally bound by time, in the sense that we can more or less predict past events from their present effects, or future events from their present causes, or either of them from general laws. Such predictions are conceptual insights, even when they concern concrete events, in that the premises of the conclusion are abstract relations. Still, the result is a consciousness of past or future, so we are justified in saying that (predictive) conception as such transcends time: the subject and object are related by it across time.

c. Many subdivisions of ‘consciousness’ refer to the attendant processes, as well as to the location and kind of phenomenon. But that different processes lead up to an event of consciousness, does not in itself mean that their result is essentially different; once consciousness is aroused it may be one and the same.

Thus, perception mediated by activity of the sense-organs is called sensory perception (or sensation). It is called seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touch-feeling, according to whether the eye, ears, mouth, nose, or touch-organs, were involved. The perceptions of various pleasures and pains in one’s own body, and of movements or stillness in or of one’s own body, are also sensory, and called feelings (sentiments, if to be distinguished from touch-feelings).

Perception of mental images could be called ‘intimate perception. (I adopt this label for lack of a better one; the colloquial expression ‘mind’s eye’ might be more fitting were it not for its limiting suggestion of visual images.) It is hard to classify this as sensory perception, in that the usual sense-organs do not seem to be involved (though the brain supposedly plays an analogous role of some sort). But it is still a form of perception, insofar as its objects are as ‘concrete’ as material ones, though mental.

Some people claim, correctly or not, powers of extra-sensory perception (ESP). That is, the ability to perceive events which are outside one’s own mind and body, and beyond the normal range of the sense-organs. We might distinguish ESP of purely material phenomena, clairvoyance (say), from ESP of mental phenomena or material phenomena linked to mental ones, telepathy (say).

I cannot personally claim to have ever experienced clairvoyance, but I have had the impression of telepathy (for example, thinking of someone and almost immediately getting a phone call from that person) often enough to discount coincidence. I remain open to the idea, without insisting on it, on the grounds that thought-transmission (awake or even in dreams) could be too fragile to withstand the stress of scientific probing. In any case, I mention ESP here, only for purposes of taxonomy.

Conceptual insight may be intuitive, immediate and direct, as when we ‘see’ as obvious that two entities are in some way alike or that two statements are contradictory. Or it may be reflective, final and indirect, occurring at the end of a long and tangled effort of thought, comprising sensory and imaginary experiences, and inductive and deductive reasonings — a complex of perceptions and conceptual insights.

The immediate and final insight are essentially the same in character; the process leading up to the latter may be regarded as only a preparatory positioning of self, faculties of cognition, and objects. The process merely ‘shows’ us the object, presents it to us, but we still need to ‘see’ it.

Conception is considered less immediate, direct and spontaneous, than perception, but there is no reason to think so. Both usually involve a process, an alignment of self, faculties, and objects, plus an effort of attention. We may or not be conscious of the preliminaries. What counts is the terminal event of perception or conception as such. That singular event has a certain, specific character, whatever its own causes or the nature of its objects.

Imagination is not in itself a kind of consciousness. It is a complex of three factors: the (‘voluntary’ or ‘spontaneous’) act of projecting a concrete mental image or abstract mental construct, the image or construct projected as an entity in itself, and the eventual consciousness of that finished product. The precedent projection is merely a creative activity of the will or nervous system; only the subsequent observation of its result properly qualifies as consciousness. The source of the object is irrelevant here, just as we would not regard the making of a table as part of seeing the table.

The images formed by imagination exist without doubt; we experience them daily. Some obvious instances: our thoughts are expressed as imaginary sounds; our dreams may clearly depict people we know. Such images are, however, considered as made of a substance distinct from common matter, which we label ‘mental’. This mental substance, like common matter, has both concrete and abstract components.

Concrete imagination, or ‘perceptualization‘ is projection of concrete mental images of any kind. This includes not only visualization (visual imagination), but also its equivalents in the other sense phenomena (auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactual, emotional). Abstract imagination, or ‘conceptualization‘ is projection of abstract mental constructs of any kind.

The expression ‘projection of images’ suggests the existence of a mental ‘matrix’ (let us call it) in which the images are formed or imbedded. This might be viewed as a multidimensional screen, capable of displaying visible, audible, and other phenomena. I find this idea occasionally convenient (to replace the broader word ‘mind’), but it need not be taken literally, because the images might be ‘holographs’, of a common substance but without a substratum.

The words percept and concept may here be explicated. We often intend them in the sense of ‘thought-units’, but I prefer to stress their alternative sense of objects of perception or conception. A concrete object of perception should be called a percept, like the green we perceive; an abstract object of conception, should be called a concept, like the greenness we conceive.

A percept is always concrete (meaning, it has perceptible qualities); it may be physical (ordinarily implying sensory perception) or mental (the object of intimate perception). In the latter case, it may have been actively fashioned by us or have arisen involuntarily: perceptualization is implied. Exactly likewise, a concept is always abstract; may be physical or mental; and in the latter case, may have been willed (reflective conception) or passively experienced (intuited): conceptualization is implied.

In practise, because concrete and abstract factors are intertwined in the objects we commonly face, we sometimes broaden the word ‘concept’ to include percepts as well as concepts. Alternatively, we apply the word ‘percept’ to all physical phenomena, whether concrete or abstract, and ‘concept’ to all mental phenomena, whether concrete or abstract: this reflects an understanding that there is no essential difference between perception and conception.

All these, however called, are in themselves objects. But besides this characterization, mental objects may additionally have a representative intent, as we saw in the previous chapter: they may make claim to some analogy to physical objects, or other mental objects. In themselves, all objects are empirical facts; the characterization as fiction only concerns claims of representation, whether the imagined object was perceptualized or conceptualized.

Lastly, note, consciousness may be verbal or wordless. The role of words has been discussed in an earlier chapter. They help us to think and communicate, and play a role in remembering. Wordless consciousness is sometimes called ‘subconscious’ — we learn or imagine, decide or intend, but without comment.

But all use of words implies an underlying consciousness of the meaning intended (meaningless sounds or written symbols do not strictly qualify as ‘words’). Words in themselves are just objects; they play no role if we are not conscious of them, and if we are only conscious of them they have no meaning. They should not be confused with the underlying consciousness of what they are intended to refer to.

Words may refer to percepts as well as concepts, or to complexes of both. Words facilitate imagination, especially conceptualization. In the latter case, words are very valuable, because they are concrete, and concrete objects are easier to manipulate and hold on to than the abstract objects they are standing in for. However, even then, for the verbal construct to have meaning, there has to been an underlying reshuffling of abstract elements. Needless to say, the resulting fiction may or may not have a factual equivalent. Either way, it is not strictly the word combination itself which is fact or fiction, but the construction that they propose.

3. The Mind.

What we call ‘the mind’ is a grab-bag of many things. It collects together: the self or soul; our faculties of cognition and volition, and imagination and affection; and the various states and motions of those faculties, and entities produced by or through them.

The soul, the spiritual entity which is our self in the deepest sense, is the unaffected Subject of consciousness and Agent of will.

The soul occupies a central position, surrounded by certain faculties. By a faculty we mean, the structures underlying an ability to perform a certain function. These infrastructures are specific arrangements of physical entities, which make possible the sort of event referred to. They are known to biology as the nervous system, and include our brains and sense and motor organs.

These biological faculties, then, constitute the physical conditions under which cognition and volition can operate. As earlier posited, cognition is essentially a relational phenomenon; likewise, volition. The states and motions which surround cognition and volition, and the entities these may result in, concern the underlying structures, and are not to be confused with cognition and volition as such. Their role is merely to provide supporting services to these functions.

Different animal species and individuals have differently structured faculties, and therefore varying powers of cognition and volition. Machines and computers are assumed to lack souls, and therefore can never be Subjects or Agents which engage in cognition or volition; they are at best as passive and mechanistic as nervous systems.

The soul is viewed as substantially different from the nervous system; they are not a part of each other, though contiguous or inhabiting the same place. The soul is in no way internally altered by cognitive or volitional or surrounding physiological and physical events; only the nervous system undergoes alterations, whether by the soul’s apprehensions and actions or by events in the rest of the body or beyond it.

However, the sphere of influence of the soul may be maximized or minimized, according to the structural condition, and present states and motions, of its allied nervous system. This means that the soul’s previous cognitions and volitions, or even external events, may — through their alterations of the nervous system — make more easy (facilitate) or render more difficult, or even permanently arrest (in the case of irreparable damage to the nervous system), the soul’s later powers of cognition and volition. It may have to go through A, B, C to get to D; or it may have D immediately available.

Thus, the soul can be said to be an ‘unmoved mover’, without thereby implying that its powers of cognition and volition are unlimited by physical conditions. The ethical doctrine of freedom of the human soul is simply that certain powers of cognition and volition remain inalienable, even when much complicated, so long as life goes on and the relevant organs are undamaged.

The faculties of imagination and affection are merely tributary aspects of cognition and volition. Affections (ranging from love to hate), for instance, are inferred from the attitudes (positionings) and expressions (actual directions) of the will, and from the content and intensity of correlative passions — bodily pleasures and pains (sentiments), and mental ones (emotions), before or after action.

Thus, to summarize, what we call ‘the mind’ is a grouping of disparate things: a central soul (with Subject and Agent capabilities); surrounding faculties (biological infrastructures, organs) which enable, delimit, and assist its cognitive and volitional relations to other things; and a power of the soul and nervous system to produce the special entities we call mental images.

The mental entities we imagine are evidently such that they can be formed either ‘spontaneously’ by the nervous system or ‘voluntarily’ by the soul. These are intimate experiences we all have. I suspect that in the latter case, the soul produces mental phenomena by acting on the nervous system, rather than directly (this would be the simplest hypothesis, since it adds no extra assumptions).

The interactive properties of soul, matter (the nervous system and the physical world around), and mental images might, in conclusion, be described as follows (I go into such detail to show the theory’s precision):

a. the soul itself cannot be altered by matter or mental phenomena, though (i) it can seemingly be pushed around space by matter, (ii) the sphere of influence of its will can be increased or diminished by the states of matter, and (iii) it is sometimes ‘incited’ to acts of will by mental images;

b. the soul can, through its will, alter matter (only through the nervous system — unless we grant telekinesis), though this power of volition has precise bounds;

c. the soul can, through its will, produce mental images (the latter probably only via the nervous system), though this power of imagination has precise bounds; if we grant telepathy, a soul can transmit mental images to other souls, or be presented with mental images transmitted to it by others (it is doubtful that this would occur via matter);

d. the nervous system can directly produce mental phenomena — but other matter (and probably the soul) cannot do so, except through the nervous system;

e. as for whether mental phenomena as such can directly affect matter — I see no reason to suppose so, since indirect explanations seem sufficient: (i) in the case of imagination by the soul, the soul acts on the nervous system with that intention, but the nervous system may yield unintended side-effects in the rest of the body (and thence beyond); (ii) in the case of involuntary imagination, the nervous-system events which produced the image may simultaneously have other effects in the rest of the body (and thence beyond); (iii) alternatively, the soul’s perception of (voluntary or involuntary) images may incite it to act (or act again) on the nervous system (and thereby beyond);

f. I doubt that mental phenomena can affect each other directly, in the way that physical ones do; this may be the most telling distinction between the two domains.

Note lastly that I do not intend the statements made here concerning the soul as dogmatically perfect and final. My concern has been to specify the logical requirements of a coherent theory of the consciousness and volition relations: what is sure is that the subject or agent must be unaffected, within that relation. But I do not exclude offhand the possibility that souls may undergo change as a result of other relations, or spiritual events.

It is noteworthy that religion suggests, and many believe, that souls (as well as having been created and being perhaps in some cases permanently destroyed) may be ‘purified’ or ‘sullied’ by their thoughts or actions. However, such improvement or deterioration of a soul is explained as a subtraction or addition of coatings of ‘impurity’ around the in itself clean soul, rather than as an intrinsic qualitative change. The ‘impurity’ interferes with clarity of insight and freedom of action; it ‘weighs down’ the soul, causing it to descend on the spiritual scale, and thus distancing it from G-d.

4. Popular Psychology.

Some philosophers exclude the soul from the description of mind, arguing that the self is merely the sum total of the other elements. But that view is logically untenable, because it raises the specter of ‘subjectivity’. As earlier pointed out, the Subject of consciousness must be such that it is unaltered by events of consciousness; if we equate self to the altered elements of mind, we transgress this logical requirement. The reason why the soul-less hypothesis seems at first sight to have some credibility, is as follows.

Many people have a vague notion of the mind, regarding it as a sort of psychical organ over and above the brain, with parallel functions and mutual influence. Here, the mind is regarded as a sort of cupboard, made of some nonphysical substance, in which we store entities like ‘ideas’ and ’emotions’. When these are placed in the lower shelves, they are held ‘unconsciously’, in the middle shelves, ‘subconsciously’, and in the upper shelves, ‘consciously’. Thought is accordingly viewed as the production, alteration and movement of such entities.

Some versions of this hypothesis explicitly or tacitly admit of a soul above, next-to, or within the ‘mental cupboard’, which to varying degrees experiences and to some extent manipulates ideas and emotions. Other versions effectively identify the soul with the ‘mental cupboard’, to admit that someone is doing the seeing, feeling, and manipulating. Still others, effectively deny the existence of a Subject and Agent, and view these events as physically-caused or relatively causeless.

However, this ‘mental cupboard’ postulate of popular psychology is simplistic. There is no basis for considering ideas and emotions as persisting, continuing to exist as mental entities somewhere, beyond the time when they are actually experienced. It is much simpler to regard them as merely occasional ‘peri-phenomena’ of the physical organs.

It is sufficient to say that to each idea or emotion there corresponds a specific chemistry in the brain cells. When the appropriate molecules are constructed and properly positioned, the mental entity is created; when thereafter the circuit is cut off, the mental entity ceases to exist. What is stored are the molecules, not the idea or emotion; the latter is recreated every time the former is re-activated.

In that case, the ‘mental storage cupboard’ is an extraneous construct. If we postulate it, the role of the brain becomes incomprehensible. There is no point in our assuming duplicate functions; it is a needless complication. Thus, actual ideas and emotions are mental phenomena, but their potentiality is a physical phenomenon.

In conclusion, then, there is no such thing as a mind, in the sense of a mental structure or ‘psyche’. There is only a uniform, unchanging soul, which experiences and wills as its way of relating to other things, a nervous system serving as physical infrastructure, and from time to time the production by these of transient mental apparitions. This scenario is by far simpler, more logical, and more empirical.