Biocentric Nature of Consciousness

This article discusses the nature of consciousness. Although it discusses consciousness from both its epistemological and ontological aspect, it is primarily about consciousness with respect to its biocentric nature, i.e. it nature as an organon, in Aristotle’s meaning, for the acquisition of knowledge required for the self-regulation of life of the conscious organism.

Consciousness: the Epistemological Perspective

While disagreeing with her definition of perception (see Sensation and Perception- A Correction), from an epistemological perspective, this author is in fundamental agreement with the Ayn Rand’s view of the essential nature of consciousness in all of its perceptual and conceptual forms.  Ayn Rand the novelist and philosopher, was a great admirer of Aristotle, and while challenging his theory of perception, agreed that perception was the basic level of immediate awareness of reality.   “Reality is identity.  Consciousness is identification.”  With these words Ayn Rand arrived at her fundamental inductive axiom regarding the relationship of consciousness to reality.   See Ayn Rand’s  Introduction to Objectivist EpistemologyBy ‘Reality is Identity,’ she meant that reality (that domain of existence that is independent of consciousness) in all of its aspects and manifestations is ruled by the law of identity.  It is what it is.  It possesses a determinate nature.  Its very being manifests its identity, its very being what it is, as contrasted with being something else.  The causal powers of an entity are determined by its identity, its nature as manifest in that particular form of being.  By ‘Consciousness is identification,” Rand meant consciousness , in all of its cognitive aspects and manifestations (from ‘simple’ sensational awareness to complex conceptual awareness) is identification.  Identification of what?  Of reality in any or  all of its epistemologically identifiable aspects and manifestations.

Ontologically, Rand has said, consciousness, as a process of identification, does not and cannot determine the nature of reality.  Note: This tenet stands in contradiction to some of the current concepts in the philosophy of physical science, such as the notion (in quantum theory, viz. in the Copenhagen interpretation of the collapse of the ‘quantum wave’ , where the interpretation is — or implies — that the value outcome of a quantum event is caused by the act or observing (or measuring) the event.  By contrast, Rand’s theory of consciousness as a process of identification must, by its very nature, adapt itself to (and cannot be the causal agent of) the facts and nature of reality (external existence from the perspective of consciousness).  Thus, being an adaptive, exploratory organ,  consciousness is always active  and never passive (as a container of static impressions) at any level of identification.

None of this denies the fact that consciousness itself is part of reality.  On the contrary, consciousness is a capacity possessed by living organisms and is, as such, a part of reality.  What distinguishes consciousness from other processes in reality is just its capacity to identify the nature of the facts of existence, including the identification of its own nature as a natural phenomenon.   From an epistemological point of view, the distinction between the essential nature of consciousness as contrasted with that of reality outside of and independent of consciousness, is fundamental if we are to have any hope of formulating a valid theory of epistemology and knowledge and a valid philosophy of science.

Another important principle about consciousness and reality is that relating to the complexity of reality vs the complexity of conscious content.   I believe that this principle is consistent with the Objectivist view of the nature of consciousness.  The principle is this: There is no simple relationship between (a) the complexity of a form of cognitive content i.e., the form in which that content is held by a conscious being, and (b) the complexity (including ontological form) of the facts of existence to which that content corresponds.

Note: I say ‘corresponds’; I do not say ‘represents’, for that is a wrong view of consciousness that cannot be validly applied to all of consciousness especially at the sensory-perceptual level.   This distinction of identification as the ‘grasping’ or  ‘holding’ of an instance of identification, rather than identification as a ‘representation’ of the external identity, is fundamental to Rand’s theory of epistemology, central to her philosophy, which she had named ‘Objectivism.’

It turns out that all conscious content is (and as we shall soon see, must be, if consciousness is to fulfill its biological purpose) always a simplified form of the external complex of properties that give rise to the conscious content.  This ‘giving rise to’ (i.e., process of identification) is quite different as we move from the sensory-perceptual level of knowledge to the level of conceptual knowledge.  Conscious processes are by their very nature psycho-epistemological (psychophysical at the sensory level, and psycho-cognitive at the conceptual level).   We will discuss the nature of this ‘cognitive simplification’ elsewhere when discussing the principle of cognitive efficiency as the optimization of cognitive ‘units’.

Philosophy has the right to say that some facts about reality are ‘given’ to consciousness at the perceptual level, while others are derived from the conscious integration of those facts by the mind of the conscious organism.   Through introspection, philosophy can both form methods of integration of perceptual facts as well as methods of understanding the limitations of the nature of what is ‘given’ at the perceptual level.

When we say that some facts about reality are ‘given’ to perception, we do not mean that they are in any way innate knowledge (e.g. Kant’s innate forms).   At the perceptual level, facts of existence are detected via sensory mechanisms that are not themselves forms of consciousness.  This concept of sensory detection of environmental objects or properties, is, according to James J. Gibson (with whom I am in fundamental agreement) is best understood as a kind of sensory ‘resonance’ in response to complex energy properties, which are experienced in the form of sensory perceptual qualities.  For a deep discussion of Gibson’s theories and there applications to a realist theory of sense perception, see my paper: The Causal Basis of Perception on this blog site.

While the perceptual level of consciousness is fundamental and is the source of content integrated at the conceptual level, all other states of consciousness, including feeling and emotion, are integrated with and essentially derived from perceptual and conceptual processes.   For example, emotions are automated evaluations of conscious content plus an action tendency based on the biological (life relevant) significance of that evaluation:  It this fact good or bad for my life?  Should I approach and embrace it or avoid and defend against it.  (This theory of emotions as automated cognitive evaluations plus action tendencies was first taught by Magda Arnold in her magnum opus Emotion and Personality.)

To misidentify the nature of the process of perception is the primary cause of the belief that our perceptions are (or are more or less characterized as) ‘illusions.’  Once misidentified (misunderstood), our mental processes for forming higher levels of knowledge from perception integration is tainted by subjectivism, self-doubt, and solipsism.   All of these latter are forms of cognitive pathology, which, unfortunately, has infected much of philosophy.   By ‘cognitive pathology’ I mean the failure of consciousness to properly identify the facts of existence.

Consciousness: the Ontological Perspective

Understanding consciousness from an epistemological perspective is vital to addressing our next philosophical question: What is the ontology of consciousness?  What is its substantive nature?  This is not a trivial nor an unimportant question.  Different answers to the ontology of fundamental substances, lead us to very different answers.  Here we must begin with the concept of substance and its history in the context of the mind/body distinction.

Plato and Descartes on the Soul:

Platonic Soul/Body Dualism:

Plato held the the soul was both the principle of bodily animation and the principle of intellectual contemplation.  Plato’s mind body dualism was quite different from that of Descartes.  Plato would find Descartes perversion of this doctrine horrifying, a soul (qua mind) incapable of directing and controlling the body of its possessor?  Thought without moral authority and guidance?  Evil! Blasphemy! For an excellent essay on Platonic vs Cartesian dualism, see “Soul and Body in Plato and Descartes” by Sarah Broadie (from Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society), 102,295, (2001).

Cartesian Substance Dualism:

Descartes mind/body dualism or consciousness/matter dualism demands that consciousness (mind) is both a substance, and a substance that cannot in principle causally interact with body (or matter) the other fundamental substance.  Descartes argues that the essence of both mind (which he calls res cogitans the knowing being) and body (which he calls res extensa, the extended being) is mathematical.  Res extensa is the reification of geometric being.  Res cogitans the intelligible form of that being, intelligible in terms of mathematical ideas.  Note the influence on Descartes of Neo-Platonism, especially that of Nicolas Cusanus, who regarded all of reality as the unfolding (explicatio) of the enfolded universe (implicatio) such that the universe is expressed, unfolds,  in all of its substantive forms as a mathematical complexity (complicans).

Descartes was not a thorough Platonist on the issue of man’s soul/mind, and differed from Plato, by holding that the soul was merely the principle of motion of animals, and was separate from mind, the principle of contemplation.  Only mind was res cogitans.  Soul, regulator of bodily action, was entirely physical.  All animals were moved entirely by mechanical principles and with the exception of man, possess no mind.

Descartes and his followers assumed the existence of a primary ‘stuff’ (res extensa) as is the essential principle of all  extended being.  This ‘stuff’ later evolved into the concept of universal physical stuff called ‘matter’ (materia).   This a priori assumption that all extended being must consist of the same common substance (or ultra substance) and that all compound forms must be composites exclusively of this substance, this matter.   This was the beginning and end of scientific ontology, which also added properties to matter, such as impenetrability (soon abandoned), continuity (soon abandoned), resistance to displacement (inertial), and finally possessing some universal mutual attractiveness (gravitas) defining basic primitive ‘force’.  For details of this history, see The Nature of Physical Existence, by Ivor Leclerc, a foremost scholar on this topic.

By making mind and body mutually exclusive substances, materialist reductionism began its relentless assault on all domains of science, including chemistry, biology and psychology.   Thus, to the extent that any substance could be deanimated and squeezed into a cannon or a pistol, its ‘behavior’ was fully understood by its resultant physics, i.e., its essence reduced to the laws of ballistics.   Thus to the materialist reductionist, only those substances that possessed the properties of extended physical matter, and only insofar as they could be weighed, measured, and physically manipulated, could they be subject to the laws of science.

Thus for mind, there was no possibility for scientific study.  To deal with this, Descartes became the world’s first behaviorist/mechanistic reductionist.  The  brain (qua soul, principle of organic animation, not mind res cogitans, principle of thought) controlled the body, through strictly physical mechanisms, neural tubes reacting to influx of energy (stimuli) and pushing on muscles representing the eflux.  Thus the beginning of reflex theory was started with Descartes.  (For details of the history of the reflex concept, see ‘Reflex Action: A Study in the History of Physiological Psychology‘ by Franklin Fearing, Ph.D).

Cartesian Man and its Implications

So why is the Cartesian model of man so dangerous.  And why is the proper concept of man as a rational being with volitional consciousness so important to both philosophy and bioscience?  Modern philosophy and bioscience are dominated by materialist reductionism, which regards mind in terms of  the Cartesian view of the mechanistic soul, i.e., to biochemistry and ultimately physical-chemistry.  Consider the philosophical implications of the words of Dr. Simon Pritchett, philosophical villain of Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, who, speaking of man’s Cartesian soul remarked“What is a man?  He’s just a collection of chemicals with delusions of grandeur.”

According to Descartes’ mechanical view of the soul (the principle of bodily control) as radically mechanistic, conscious beings, both body and soul, were merely complex machines.  Nietzsche soundly attacked this ‘Copernicanization’ of man, alienating man farther and farther away from cosmic and moral significance.

Has not man’s determination to belittle himself developed apace precisely since Copernicus? … Ever since Copernicus man has been rolling down an incline, faster and faster, away from the centre—whither? … All science … is now determined to talk man out of his former respect for himself, as though that respect had been nothing but a bizarre presumption.  – from Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, tr. Francis Golffing, New York, Doubleday, 1956, Third Essay, XXV, p. 291f.

[The above quote is copied from p. 58 of Arran Gare’s ‘MATHEMATICS, EXPLANATION AND REDUCTIONISM: EXPOSING THE ROOTS OF THE EGYPTIANISM OF EUROPEAN CIVILIZATION’, published in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol. 1, no. 1, 2005, p 54-89.]

In he above quotation, according to Gare, Nietzsche was assaulting the Cartesian, Newtonian and Leibnizian science upon which was built the ‘moderate enlightenment’, which sought a static mathematical model of man and society.  Process and change were ushered out and declared anathema.  The new philosophy of mathematics and mathematical science were to rule man’s minds and bodies.


The hidden project of this moderate enlightenment was to develop a form of knowledge that would not only facilitate control over nature, but also facilitate control over people; that is, to produce a social order in which people would be organized efficiently. – from Gare,  p. 57.

Thus we see the ultimate consequences for man and society of a philosophy based on mathematical science.  Man as a captive cog in the mechanical machine of centrally controlled social order.  To fully understand the nature and implications of the moderate and radical enlightenment, Gare recommends the book Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity by Stephen Toulmin, University of Chicago Press, 1990.  From the book description found at the above link:

In the seventeenth century, a vision arose which was to captivate the Western imagination for the next three hundred years: the vision of Cosmopolis, a society as rationally ordered as the Newtonian view of nature. While fueling extraordinary advances in all fields of human endeavor, this vision perpetuated a hidden yet persistent agenda: the delusion that human nature and society could be fitted into precise and manageable rational categories. Stephen Toulmin confronts that agenda—its illusions and its consequences for our present and future world.

Cosmopolis is the model of every flavor of dystopia in the modern world, from Communism, to Fascism, to the Islamic State.  Cosmopolis is clearly seen in modern literature and cinematography.  The list is long and familiar. Here are the most familiar to the current and previous generation:  Orwell’s ‘1984’,  Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, Rands ‘Anthem’,  Lowry’s ‘The Giver’, Collins’ ‘Mokingjay’.

Aristotle: Body/Soul as Unified Substance:

Being a Neo-Platonist, Descartes abandoned virtually all of the fundamental ontological principles articulated and elucidated by Aristotle.  Key Aristotelian ontological concepts include substance, generation, corruption, form, matter (not in its Newtonian sense), energy (energia, again not in the Newtonian sense), space (not in the Newtonian sense), and time (again not with the Newtonian sense), potentiality, actuality, and the four causes (material, formal, efficient and final).   Aristotle also discussed at length the issues of both infinity and continuity as potentiality and never actuality.  Aristotle argued that every cause has these four aspects, perspectives or principles of causality.  But the fundamental Aristotelian issue is that of the nature of substance.

But what was Aristotle’s doctrine of substance, the key issue in this discussion?  Aristotle defined a substance as self-subsistent fully existent, independent, integrated being.  Thus the test of a true substance is that if it is arbitrarily divided, it ceases to be the substance that it was before its division.  It is no longer.  Half a stone is still a stone, but half a horse is is a dead slab of flesh and bone, not a horse, not a substance, not an ousia (οὐσία).   Can a horse or a man be separated from his soul psuche (psyxḗ) and still be ousia?  No.  Man’s body and soul are inseparably integrated to form a unitary substance.  Man is not a body with a soul added or vice versa, nor does man’s body exist in one reality and his soul in another.

Aristotle on the Soul as Substance:

And so, we have here the Aristotelian ontology of soul, mind, consciousness, if you please.  Body and mind (soul) are an indivisible integrated unitary substance composed of two principles, soul and body.  Mind is not body.  Body is not mind.  These two principles coexist in the form of soulful (or conscious) beings.  Nor is consciousness ‘of’ the body, since consciousness is of any external existent that is by its nature ‘sensible’ (for details, see my paper The Causal Basis of Perception  on this blog site.)

Aristotle on Essence as Substance:

In her book, Substance and Essence in Aristotle: An Interpretation of Metaphysics VII-IX,  Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1989., Charlotte Witt called out an important aporia stated by Aristotle, which discusses the proper method or guidelines that would allow us to determine whether essences are universals (shared principles) or particulars (substances):

We must not only raise these questions about the principles but also ask whether they are universals or what we call particulars.  If they are universal, they will not be substances; for nothing common indicates a ‘”this’ but rather a “such,” but substance is a “this.”  But, if we set up the common predicate as a “this,” then Socrates will be many animals—himself and and and animal, if each of these indicates a “this” and a unity.  If, then, the principles are universal, these things follow.  If, on the other hand, they are not universals but like particulars, they  will not be knowable.  For knowledge of anything is universal.  Therefore, if there is to be knowledge of the principles, there will be other principles prior to them, which are predicated universally of them. [1003a5-17] Substance and Essence in Aristotle, p, 144-145

Unlike some modern theories of epistemology, most notably Rand’s Objectivism,  which argues that essence is an epistemological concept, pertaining to the way in which man forms concepts about a given class of entities, viz. by identifying (in the words of Rand) its ‘conceptual common denominator’, or its conceptual ‘essence’, Charlotte Witt’s recent new interpretation of  Aristotle, contra the epistemological view of essence (commonly held to be the proper understanding of Aristotle), argues  that Aristotle held essence to be ontological.  See, in particular, ‘Chapter 5; The Ontological Status of Essence’ in Substance and Essence in Aristotle: An Interpretation of Metaphysics VII-IX by Charlotte Witt, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1989.

. . . Aristotle thought that its form or essence is the cause of being of an individual, composite substance; its essence is responsible for there being an actual determinate, unified substance rather than a heap of matter, potential and indeterminate. . . .for Aristotle, form or essence is an individual and not a universal.  Indeed, the intent of this chapter is to replace the traditional interpretation of Aristotelian essences—that an essence is a cluster of universal properties—with an interpretation according to which an essence is an individual substance, though not, of course, a composite of sensible substance.  –  Substance and Essence in Aristotle, p, 143

Witt compares her position with similar views held by (a) Wilfrid Sellars and Rogers Albritton (“Substance and Form in Aristotle,” Journal of Philosophy, 22 [Oct. 1957], 698-708) where, Witt argues,  the essence-as-form interpretation of Aristotle first originated.  (b) Michael Frede (“Substance in Aristotle’s Metaphysics” in Aristotle on Nature and Living Things, ed. Allan Gotthelf [Pittsburg: Mathesis Publication, 1985], 17-26).  And (c) Edwin Hartman (“Aristotle on the Identity of Substance and Essence,” Philosophical Review, 85 [Oct. 1976], 545-561. Witt comments in a footnote:

My interpretation differs from both Frede’s and Hartman’s with respect to the issue of the function of Aristotle’s individual essences.  I believe there is very little evidence for the Frede-Gartman proposal that the issue is substantial identity.  Rather, the essence is the cause of being of a substance, the central function of essence is to explain the actual existence of a unified substance.   –  Substance and Essence in Aristotle, footnote, p, 143-144

What is the importance of this seemingly esoteric distinction of treating essence as ontological versus epistemological?  The the key to understanding Aristotle’s view of on this issue is that Aristotle saw essence as a causal principle acting upon a particular ontological form, i.e., as a cause (in the sense of actualization of a being’s potentiality) of a this being exactly this being (or existent).  Thus, according to Witt’s interpretation of Aristotelian essence, Aristotle held that it is a thing’s essence that is the very cause of its being what it is ontologically.  Being what it is to be a horse is the essence of a horse, qua horse.  Or, man qua man.

I believe that there is no fundamental conflict between Witt’s view of Aristotelian essence as ontological and causal and Rand’s view of essence as epistemological, especially in the case of conscious beings.  Rand saw the ontological nature of causality and in a thing’s identity when she  argues that:

‘Causality is the Law of Identity applied to action.  All actions are caused by entities. The nature of an action is caused and determined by the nature of the entities that act; a thing cannot act in contradiction to its nature. . .’    Galt’s Speech, For the New Intellectual,  p. 151

One can clearly argue that Aristotle (according to Witt) is asserting that, in the case of man, his essential identity qua man is his special form of consciousness, his rational consciousness.  It is this that is the causal basis of his being a man (versus a horse).  Aristotle is saying, that for the individual man (human) the power of rationality is in his being, and is therefore ontological.  Rand’s epistemology is properly identifying this ontological power as essential to understanding what we mean by ‘man’, i.e., ‘man, the rational animal.’   I do not see an inherent conflict between ontology and epistemology with respect to the concept of essence as causal determinant of an individual’s being qua being.

More broadly, at least one other modern Aristotelian, H. W. B. Joseph, sees the connection between ontology and epistemology when he argues that necessity in logic is rooted in ontology:

In other words, unless the primary Laws of Thought were Laws of Things, our thought would be doomed by its very nature to misapprehend the nature of things.  – H. W. B Joseph,  An Introduction to Logic, p. 13.

Consciousness as Biocentric and Bioemergent

To properly understand the functional nature of consciousness as identification,  it is necessary to grasp the fact that consciousness, in its essential form and potentiality, is a biological power.   Consciousness is, as we said above, the faculty (capacity, principle, power) of an organism to  know the world and itself.  Since organisms always develop and live in an ecosystem unique to their nature, Gibson (and I agree) would add: we always know the world in relationship to ourselves and ourselves in relationship to the world (or more concretely, our environment and its ecology).  Thus consciousness serves the biological needs of guiding the organism through its environment through its identification of the ecological relationships and possibilities offered by the environment.

All biological processes (and I consider consciousness a biological process, albeit one possessing special emergent properties that make it absolutely unique in nature) are properly defined teleologically, in that they serve some need of the organism).  This means that concepts of biological processes  are properly defined with respect to their capacity to fulfill the corresponding functional requirements for sustaining the life of the organism, which embodies both the processes and the organs that realize those processes.  It is these functional properties that justify their being understood as teleological (in the Aristotelian sense as having final cause, ‘that for the sake of which’ they exist and are what they are’).

The great physiologist, Claude Bernard, recognized the unity and harmony of the parts of organisms, and argued that as physiologists scientists must be conscious of the the organism’s parts as interdependent mutually generative of the organism as a whole and as its own final cause.

But physiologists, finding themselves, on the contrary, outside the animal organism which they see as a whole, must take account of the harmony of this whole, even while trying to get inside, so as to understand the mechanism of its every part.  The result is that physicists and chemists can reject all idea of final causes for the facts that they observe; while physiologists are inclined to acknowledge an harmonious and pre-established unity in an organized body, all of whose partial actions are interdependent and mutually generative.  – from An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, p. 89.

This view shows a clear influence on Bernard of the ontology of Aristotle’s biology.  I  share this point of view, and thus emphasize that by emergent I mean (in the spirit of Aristotelian biology) the actualization of a potentiality existing at some level within the hierarchy of organized layers that constitute any organism.  I am here embracing a Neo-Aristotelian interpretation of the modern concept of emergence.

In addition, I emphasize the fact that processes are capabilities (themselves, in Aristotelian terms, actualizations of dynamic potentialities) of organs, to clearly contrast this with the faulty idea that processes can exist independently of entities which realize (actualize) these processes.  In other words, I am rejecting the concept of the primacy of processes as antecedent to entities which embody these processes or are essentially the mere manifestations of processes (an idea that can partially be trace to A. N. Whitehead and before him Heraclitus).  This does not deny that the existence, realization or creation of entities may themselves be the product or explication of external or internal processes.  Nor does it deny that entities may by their very nature be active down to the deepest level of their ontology.  It holds only that to the extent that entities are the product of the actions of external processes,  those external processes are themselves ultimately the properties and capacities of other entities.  This view is consistent with biological emergence, i. e. the idea that an organism consists of a hierarchy of emergent processes from a hierarchy of ‘nested’ systems of complex structures.

[Note: The topic of emergence begins in this blog with About Emergence and is elaborated with the sub-pages shown in the submenu under that main page.}

Copyright © 2014 by bioperipatetic.  

Published on April 5, 2014  7:55 am

Latest revision: October 8, 2017 @ 1:31 am

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