You are here

Phenomenal or 'Experience" Consciousness vs Functional Consciousness

26 January, 2016 - 17:30
Available under Creative Commons-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Download for free at

What if someone only had phenomenological experiences without consciousness? Ned Block distinguishes between what he calls 'access' consciousness and 'phenomenal' consciousness. He states that A- consciousness is representational and has direct control of thought and action (A-consciousness is the functional aspect of mind while P-consciousness is the experiential aspect). If A=P then information processing theories are right and the mind can be made that way. If, however, a humans realizations matter then there is a more subjective element and experience cannot be described or programmed. Something with only A-consciousness would be a zombie or robot - since it would be functioning like a human but it would have no experience or sensation of experiences.

That makes sense, if someone only had feelings and had no rationality (similar to an animal) then it would only be phenomenally aware. If someone had direct control over their consciousness, and didn't experience things very much then it would be easy to create a machine that duplicated that behavior since machines don't feel. Searle, 1990 mentions Blocks theory of access consciousness and criticizes it for confusing levels of attention and consciousness:

  • There are lots of different degrees of consciousness, but door-knobs, bits of chalk, and shingles are not conscious at all... These points, it seems to me, are misunderstood by Block. He refers to what he calls an "access sense of consciousness." On my account there is no such sense. I believe that he .. [confuses] what I would call peripheral consciousness or inattentiveness with total unconsciousness. It is time, for example, that when I am driving my car "on automatic pilot" I am not paying much attention to the details of the road and the traffic. But it is simply not true that I am totally unconscious of these phenomena. If I were, there would be a car crash. We need therefore to make a distinction between the center of my attention, the focus of my consciousness on the one hand, and the periphery on the other ... There are lots of phenomena right now of which I am peripherally conscious, for example the feel of the shirt on my neck, the touch of the computer keys at my finger-tips, and so on. But as I use the notion, none of these is unconscious in the sense in which the secretion of enzymes in my stomach in unconscious.

It makes sense that there are lots of degrees of consciousness - that is fairly obvious actually. What makes it more complicated is to find out what exactly is going on - i.e. how emotionally focused are you on one thing, how much of the focus is intellectual, how much of it is planned or intended vs automatic.

I mean if you are unconsciously focused on something then is it more emotional since the unconscious is more animal-like? How much does it matter if it easy to process or is high in information? Those concepts relate to system 1 and system 2 dual process theories and how those theories relate to consciousness vs. unconsciousness (which I talk about in another article m51859).

The unconscious mind gives largely the experience or feeling of life because when you think you can only focus on a little compared to how much you can focus on unconsciously - of course you can't really 'focus' on something unconsciously because by definition it is unconscious - so you could be doing more automated activities related to it but not really focus on it clearly like when you consciously focus on something.

So in my view theories of consciousness can be described by how conscious or unconscious various aspects of them are. This includes functions of the mind and how the mind experiences life - both are either conscious or unconscious, or some combination of both.

The mind is often described as an iceberg with only a small portion on the surface. The surface part is what people are conscious of, and beneath the water lies the unconscious. The important question then is what does an unconscious experience feel like? Dreams are entirely unconscious because you are sleeping - but what aspects of experience and functioning are unconscious when a person is awake?

All automatic mental processes are unconscious - all non-automatic ones that need conscious thought are conscious, though they may have unconscious aspects of experience. So a conscious thought can guide an unconscious experience. How do you define if a feeling is conscious or not, however? Feelings are a large part of experience, and the conscious mind can guide them, trigger them or inhibit them.