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The Mind

Looking at the Nature of Consciousness

Consciousness and design, by their very nature, exist outside of these limitations. An excellent overview of the structure of consciousness can be found in Chapter 6 of John Searle's The Rediscovery of the Mind, but we will look only at those features that are particularly important to purpose and design.

The fundamental and defining characteristic of consciousness is a unique kind of unity. Consciousness is invariably composed of many separate elements that are all part of our single, present awareness. You may have a pain in a joint, be seeing the desk in front of you with an array of papers and other objects while listening to your favorite music. All of these are part of a single awareness: you experience them all at once. Each of these perceptions—the pain, the visual awareness of the desk, and the music—is itself composed of many separate elements. This is perhaps clearest in the case of vision. Our field of vision could be broken down into an array of individual “pixels,” like a computer screen, each presumably corresponding to a single cone or rod in our retinas.

Time as well as space are included in the unity. The perception of movement, such as of a flying bird, or a flickering flame, necessitates the unity of images through time. We do not simply see the solitary image of the present and "remember" the image that preceded it; we perceive it all together: a unity over differences in time and space. Our awareness of music or speech is necessarily a unity over time. Although our awareness can be thought of as founded in an array of such unitary bits of information, it is more than just a collection of “data.” Our minds automatically structure the data into meaningful structures: our perceptions.

We become acutely aware of this facility when presented with optical illusions such as those in which an object, say a deer, is hidden in a design that appears to be merely foliage. After staring at the picture for a minute or so, the animal suddenly pops out at us. Other illusions allow us to perceive one or the other of two objects—a duck or a rabbit, a vase or two faces, or an old crone or young woman—while looking at a single design. The visual “data” does not change, but what we “see” does.

Another way in which awareness is structured has to do with what philosophers call “intentionality.” Much of our awareness is intention; one part of consciousness is directed in some specific way to another part. I have a belief about something; I afraid that it might rain; I am angry at my boss; I am hungry for a tuna-fish sandwich.

Perception and intentionality can be seen as particular extensions of the fundamental unity of consciousness. That unity defines consciousness because as it expands—as more elements are included—so does consciousness expand. And as it shrinks, so does consciousness, such that were it to be reduced to a single bit of information consciousness would effectively disappear. A single bit of data, or “pixel,” (to use a computer analogy) with nothing to compare to, would be meaningless. Awareness is necessarily awareness of differences.

[Next page: Purpose]