Miri Albahari

Philosophy Dept., University of Western Australia

Journal of Consciousness Studies, 16, No. 1, 2009, pp. 62-84


Near the beginning of her paper, Albahari defines the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, as the need to discover how subjective qualities fit into the physical world. Subjective or phenomenal qualities, otherwise known as qualia, are defined as those qualities, where there is ‘something it is like’, to have them. For instance, there is something it is like, to have the experience of the colour green. Qualia are associated both with the sensory modalities such as colour and with thoughts and feelings.

Albahari is not content to leave the definition of consciousness at that. She considers that consciousness is split into the qualia of green etc., and a subject that is aware of the qualia, described here as a background hum, or an observing aspect of the subject, to which the experiences are presented. This observing aspect is not related to any particular modality, and can be viewed as modality neutral.

Albahari describes this observing aspect as ‘witness-consciousness’. Witness-consciousness sounds, initially, to be very similar to the ‘self’, which is so easily deconstructed into being a combination of narrative memory and the distinction between body and non-body. A common trick in consciousness studies, is to conflate self or self-consciousness with consciousness, de-construct the self, and Pow! _____ our author has astonished us all, by dismissing the suddenly trivial problem of consciousness.

Albahari, who is open to Buddhism and Eastern thought, does not go down this route. Instead, she relates witness-consciousness to advanced states of meditation, where, first, it is possible to become more aware of experiences and thoughts, as they enter and leave the mind, and, finally, it is possible to experience an objectless consciousness, where it is something it is like to be in this objectless state.

This idea accords with a large body of literature, in which altered states of consciousness reached by various means, or sometimes entered spontaneously, produce a state in which the self disappears, or merges with he surrounding environment, but there is, nevertheless, still something that observes. Albahari suggests that this observer may be always present, but seldom noticed in the rush of ordinary conscious states. Such an observer is not restricted to any particular modality.

Albahari particularly stresses that this observer is not to be confused with the action of introspecting, an action which has itself been hounded by many western thinkers of the last century. Introspection is a self-conscious act of reflecting on thoughts, feelings or experiences, as opposed to the altered state of still observing, when the self is no longer there.

Albahari also distinguishes it from what she calls the ‘for-me-ness’ of experience, the feeling that an experience belongs to the self. Damasio, in his somewhat disappointing book on emotion, ‘The Feeling of What Happens’ (1.), seems to try and evade the issue of emotions and consciousness, by trying to make everything a property of the self. This probably doesn’t stand up even in ordinary life, because while some experiences are very much attached to our identity as a person, on other occasions, we may, perhaps literally, ‘lose ourselves’ in, for instance, a story or a landscape or the feeling of a fine day. In the widely reported experience of loss of self in altered states of consciousness, Damasio’s conflation of consciousness with the self definitely does not apply. The notion of ‘for-me-ness’ that can sometimes allow conflation of qualia with the self, is not there at all, if we arrive at this objectless consciousness.

One counter argument to Albahari is that the subject of experience is actually only a cacophony of background experiences. Albahari suggests that this argument does not take account of the distinction between attention and in-attention. If we listen to an orchestra, while having a mild back pain, we may be unaware of the back pain for a time. If the self, or the ‘for-me-ness’, is involved in this at all, it is in attending to the orchestra and not the background of unattended pain.

Towards the end of her paper, Albahari discusses the views of the prominent mid 20th century philosopher, Ryle. This philosopher seemed to accept that there was something elusive about consciousness, but as is the way in consciousness studies, decides to pass it off as an illusion. He suggests that the elusive nature of the conscious subject is no more mysterious than the fact that one can never jump onto the head section of one’s own shadow. As with so many, for a moment, beguiling images in consciousness discussions, there is an important flaw with this approach. The reason that one cannot jump onto one’s shadow in this way can be explained with a simple diagram of the position of the sun, your body and your shadow, and the whole thing could no doubt be made to look more scientific, and slightly harder to understand, with a bit of geometry. This goes for many similar arguments in consciousness studies, such as the assertion that people who don’t accept that consciousness can be derived from existing neuroscience plus classical physics are like people who think the Earth is flat. The roundness of the Earth is fairly easy to demonstrate, but the efficacy of existing neuroscience in producing consciousness is not, which is why more ink gets spilt on the latter than the former subject. Albahari’s own argument is that, if it was as simple as Ryle seems to be suggesting, the nature of consciousness would have been explained to general satisfaction by traditional scientific methods, and philosophers would not now be continuing to spend a lot of time discussing the issue. But it hasn’t, and they are. Her view is that the reason for this is that there is an awareness of a subjective element in the act of experiencing.

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