The Parable of the Preying Mantis
One fine day you oversleep, rushing to do your morning ablutions, dress, grab a bite on the run and rush out to go to work. As you leave you pass and briefly glance through a large window overlooking your flowers into a beautiful summer morning. But you're running late and have no time to look at scenery, and so the rest of the morning never think about it being engrossed first with he hassles of traffic then getting caught up with the minutia of your job. Come lunchtime, you've caught up with where you should be, at least enough to spend a few minutes in your lunch "hour" on "me" time, and being a science and nature nerd, you peruse the tubies and come across an article about local insects. It goes into some depth and then opens a paragraph on local variants of the preying mantis with illustrations. Startled, you suddenly realize that right there on your own window sill this very morning was an absolutely beautiful specimen of the mantis, chilling out doing it's insecty thing looking for all the world like it was posing for a nature magazine photo spread. In your mind's eye you can see exactly where it was on the sill, the color of its eyes (orange or white?), the hue in iridescence of its wings and the slightly different hue of its thorax. Compared to the sill you could probably estimate it's size to within a centimeter. In other words you *know* beyond possible doubt that it was there, that you saw it in some detail and know a great deal of graphic detail about the gestalt scene and circumstance where you saw it.
Now comes the magic question. There's no question that "seeing the preying mantis" is at some time that day a real event of your consciousnes. It was affective and effective, meaning you have feelings - motivational dispositions - about it and may choose to make changes to the real world based upon that perception in your consciousness just as you do with the numbers you perceive in consciousness about your bank balance. Your consciousness of the mantis has physical agency. It is materially real.
But there remains a big outstanding issue:
Did you first 'have consciousness' regarding the preying mantis at 7:30 A. M? Or only after 12:30 P. M?
To those who believe in some consistent unitary incorrigible consciousness, it's rather a vexing question, don't you think?
This is a rather mundane happenstance though usually less dramatic: we remember seeing something that provides actionable positive, predictive information. But only remember such after some stimulus arousing an association with that memory. Without that prompt we would within a few hours to a day have completely forgotten about it. If I ask you whether and where the salt was when you left the breakfast table this morning, you can probably tell me, "seeing" in your mind's eye some residual memories of the meal. If I ask you where it was this day a week ago you'd look at me as though I suggested a sexual romp with wild raccoons; such memories are transient and take their effervescence as so obvious that we have difficulty conceiving them otherwise.
If you answer the question as 7:30, the problem is that you are saying that the information that your brain records but that YOU never access is intrinsically and inexorably a part of "consciousness". But that, of course, imputes that any and all mechanics of the brain that *may* at some point affect that we can reflexively and articulalbly contemplate are "consciousness". Where does it stop? If I get an ingrown toenail that causes reflexively aware pain, is the inanimate toenail a part of consciousness? Too far? How about the hormone regulation done by the lower brainstem? Remember that they affect both the brain directly and indirectly by effect on bodily process that subsequently affect the brain processes. And many such continue under deepest anesthesia where there's no trace of residual psychological consciousness remaining. The point is that saying 7:30 makes the distinction between the parts of the brain necessarily involved in consciousness and those which do processing which may in some way affect articulable reflexive consciousness wholly arbitrary.
On the other hand if you answer 12:30, you are saying that your consciousness of the mantis, long after it has left any possibility of immediate perception, *is only a reconstruction*, a re-imaging of previous sensory records made by your brain. In purest essence that "consciousness" is a construct of raw data, that is to say "computation".
This is well and good but if so it can not be incorrigible, as we know, empirically established beyond any shadow of doubt, that memory in the brain is anything but and influenced by innumerable factors. To the extent that it has the agency mentioned above, it is incorrigible that such consciousness exists/ed, but the representational content of such consciousness event, that is the memory of the mantis, is anything but incorrigible. And even the vapid incorrigibility of having had an experience of some kind is suspect across time: given that we've demonstrated that the preying mantis consciousness is a construct from known-to-be-very-corruptible memory, once removed from the immediate recollection the recollection of having had the experience of seeing the mantis is subject to a second level of mnemonic decay and divergence. That we have consciousness and phenomenal events as part of what our brains do is incontrovertible, and they are materially real ... they are our brains changing physically as they process information. But the tag "incorrigible" is objectively wrong here.
Being a synthetic construct it is anything but "unitary". You can remember the mantis on your window sill yet again, but it is NOT the same event in consciousness as now you have the comparison with the memory of the earlier consciousness event. The new reconstruction is different if only because you have previously had a similar consciousness event and your contemporary consciousness includes some comparison with such. If you remember the mantis somehow not remembering or thinking of your earlier memory of it, you have no basis for comparison to the earlier consciousness event, hence cannot tell if such is "unitary" or not - you cannot know what you don't know! And there are broad hints that brain memory is "read once", that is different on every access - but that's rather moot as there is no epistemological basis for "unitary" in such case. You can say "unitary" as in each consciousness event is unique, but that's rather vacuous among us Fermions, such that only one event happens at one place at one time. In short "unitary" goes out the window as meaningless verbiage at best but simply wrong in any plausible operational meaning.
Consistent goes out the window for the same reasons but is even more self effacing than the notions of incorrigibility. You cannot *know* whether your brain is constructing a secondary "experience" of the preying mantis from the same store of more primitive information as the original or whether it is explicitly derived from the prior memory. In which case "consistency" is again tautological, and almost by definition if you first and secondary recollection of a prior more primitive event are in conflict, then one (or both!) such recollections are misapprehensions of the original event.
The result then is that the nonsense words philosophers warble to make consciousness seem mysterious, complex and outside the scope of modern science and objective investigation, are diversionary at best. "Consciousness" or "phenomenal" events are either meaningless - if we vehemently adhere to 7:30 we are committed forcing such words to be ambiguous and equivocable to a point beyond merit of discourse, in which case we simply need to make other words better defined. Or it must be acknowledged to designate what are demonstrably processes of moving around information - memories - previously collected by the brain's processes. That is that "consciousness" or "phenomenality" are information processes. ---
Me, I think all words are lies. "Consciousness" grand and powerful among them.
There are real things the brain does that falls under the commonplace rubric of "consciousness". I explicitly stated that the consciousness event of the preying mantis had material agency. That stands whether you want to say 7:30 or 12:30. At 7:30 the brain physically changed as your eyes beheld the insect through your window and made some record of the event such that you *could* later recall it. Your recollection at 1230 made additional physical changes to your brain altering your subsequent dispositions (you might talk about it to a friend or write a silly philosophy article.)
"Consciousness" is a word WE create and ascribe to our perceptions of some of the things we see ourselves and those we choose to see as similar to us in some ways doing. But what the constraints are on those things we shove into the bucket and those creatures and things we choose to think being worthy to join us in such bucket is OUR choice. The universe doesn't CARE how arbitrary and silly our definitions and delineations are. Our brains will keep doing what they do (including making hilariously stupid definitions) regardless.
But if WE want better agency in this world we need to abandon pretense and try to find or choose to use words in ways that demarcate reality more consistently.
What we call "phenomenality" is, IMO almost entirely a synthetic construct (see The Phenomenal Snark). I'll stand moot on "consciousness" precisely because consciousness as I see it is intrinsically a process of layered complexity with constraints which may be established arbitrarily depending on the context and purpose for which the word is used.
"The Parable of the Preying Mantis" is meant solely to dispel the notions of some magic and unchanging reality to our experiences of our own consciousness - sadly perpetuated in a great deal of quite nonsensical philosophy of mind. There are things we characterize as "conscious experiences" that exist, beyond question, and are a real and material part of how we (more properly our brains) as living beings navigate and choose to act in our environment. But to understand what our brains are doing - WHO WE ARE, in essence - we need to unabashedly put the trash in the bins, and deal with the realities that are.
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