Explore as a

Share our content

The Conscious Soul: everything, everywhere, all at once

By Emeritus Professor Grant Gillett FRSNZ

Consciousness immediately evokes the idea of the conscious being located somewhere alert to its' surroundings and what is happening around it in terms of objects and events (Gillett, 1992, Representation meaning and thought, Oxford OUP).

The individuation of objects and place yields a linguistic and shared basis for a framework in what Wittgenstein calls ‘grammar’ of ‘referents’ to which we refer and qualities which we describe to add detail (Evans, G. Varieties of Reference, Oxford, OUP). The qualities are predicative and what are referred to are objects and particular actions or ‘experiences’ located in time and space and the life story of a conscious individual who may or may not have a grammar.

Through grammar, language enables us to communicate about both objects and predicates in all their variations thus Gareth Evans thought has spawned 30 years of scholarship which links consciousness to what he called the ‘generality constraint’ linking individuated items to their widely applicable qualities or properties. Thereby a particular person could be linked in thought to various human characteristics such as being warm-blooded or being able to see colours. Thus a relationship between Oxford language based philosophy (via what Wittgenstein called ‘grammar’) and the philosophy of human psychology which included experience, action and ethics (Gillett, From Aristotle to cognitive science, London. Palgrave.2021 Our entree is human engagement with the world and each other – via the psyche/psuche/soul. This is an Aristotelian concept, one aspect of which is inference from experience to general ‘truth’ and a complex set of cognitive abstractions (e.g.’my daughter coming home from school’) culminating, when investigated in philosophical psychology fully informed by modern science and dynamic neuroimaging,

2. Various abstractions

Time is deeply involved in science, both historical time and lived or experimental time; that allows coordination between people and varieties of thought involving such things as expectation and planning (one of us needs to be home by 3pm) and also the growth of knowledge.

Locus ties the memory of an experience and therefore the events remembered to a place where they happened. This allows the site of an event (not important for science which id an objective ‘view from nowhere’ but important for law and history, which always concern ‘somebody somewhere’).

Action tells what happened in the event which may just be an episodes in a human life and the details of which concern and implicate the persons involved in various roles which may be of utmost importance (both to the  law and ethics).

Actors involve agents and patients (those who endure the effects, of an act, a disease, or a regimen or even a series of events). The events may be impersonal or involve the do-ers and those ‘done to’ either of whom may be humans acting on intentions relevant to important reflections on the event (in law, for instance).

3. ‘All at once’ focuses on the time factor built into the neural complex in varying ways

3.1 Lived moments and sequences of interaction. These moments will be associatively linked and form the basis of an autobiography which the individual can carry as a cognitive context against which new interactions can be contextualised and cumulatively contribute to the whole.

3.2 Imagination, anticipations of perception and engagement arise organically updated as they occur and are ‘filled out or nested in the constantly updated and self-modifying associative whole opening up the potential for new strands and trains in the woven whole.

3.3. History, verbally communicated and recorded enables a person to prepare a self-presentation that can be shared with others and help one reaffirm the key features of self as a culturally and temporally located person for sharing with the public world. This creation affirms the features of self that inform one’s self-conception in society and as a public persona.

3.4 The future anticipated and prepared for takes on ‘shape’ in this personalised psychic context. In this light the future, though shared, is also coloured by individual consciousness so that each person anticipates experiences in a personally inflected way.

3.5 Mirror neurons and their associated neural reverberative loops serving empathy and shared ‘moments’ (both senses) structure neurocognition dynamically and enactively These scattered collections of neural function are found in multiple brain areas so that the conceptual phenomenon of diversity of faculties and triangulation in content is pervasive in human psychic reality.

4. Human consciousness shares much with animal consciousness but is extended by language and thereby occurs in a shared ‘world’ in space and time. Plants share this world in such a limited way that they do not get onto the first and relatively simple sensorimotor rung of consciousness far less access the extended connections with the world involved in semantics and self-awareness.  Language therefore takes on special importance as a means of cognitive interaction through discourse with other subjects.

5. Place and locomotion is the basis of individuation of objects of reference in words. An object as the bearer of properties and dynamic characteristics grounded in human acquaintance with it thus figures in consciousness in ways that depend on our dynamic interaction with it which is holistic and extended in time and thought. Of serious historical significance is the way that that plants and all the biosphere share with us vulnerability to climate change

6. AI and the soul can be contrasted in various ways.

6.1 Location is tied to a living biological ‘device’ without a dynamic sensorimotor relation to the world distinct from its origin in human artifice.

6.2 An AI device lacks a physiology and flesh and therefore all the weaknesses to which flesh is prone and a shared conception of affective relationships and shared mortality..

6.3 An AI device does not have mirror neurones and their linked networks that link human beings in ‘ties that bind’.

Therefore AI faces certain problems in approximating human consciousness and the soul in that it does not feel the wind ruffling its hair or have heroes which make it so that in imagination feel it can ‘fly higher than an eagle’.

Reference: Freeman, W, 2013, ‘Mechanism and significance of global coherence in scalp EEG.’ Current Opinion in Biology. 2015, 23; 199-205