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The origin of consciousness has been discussed from time immemorial with different authors, both philosophers, and scientists trying to understand and comprehend its relationship to the mind.
In this article, I seek to understand the true definition of consciousness about the works of Damasio’s “The Feeling of What Happens” and Pinker’s “How the Mind Works.” Their works define consciousness from the perspective of cognitive science and neuroscience, and that is what I seek to compare and contrast.
Damasio argues that neuroscience is a mother of consciousness and uses an example of neurologists and how they limit themselves to the basic definition of consciousness as a matter between the start and the end of a comma.
Thus, he further argues that the matter of consciousness is dependent on the art of selective attention where a person may decide either voluntarily to pay attention or involuntarily due to an external factor such as an illness (Damasio 32). Damasio also illustrates how consciousness is related to creativity and how it influences their emotions and feelings.
On the other hand, Pinker’s argument is directly at loggerheads with the basic definition of neuroscience, where we hope to understand the functionality of the brain and the mind as a whole. He argues that it is impossible to comprehend how a complex organ as the mind operates. This directly makes Pinker’s argument the one that supports the basic idea that cognitive science affects consciousness.
Pinker’s argument, unlike Damasio’s, does not expect us to have the slightest idea of how the consciousness and cognitive science are achieved as these are both products of the human mind which is complex and difficult to comprehend since the mind differs among different individuals due to the basic theory of natural selection and experiences that never apply equally among individuals (Pinker 66).
Therefore, it is such reasoning that drives Pinker to argue against the scientific definitions of the mind as compared to the philosophical definitions while Damasio balances the two fields.
Damasio further argues that for one to be able to understand the process of consciousness and cognitive science, they should be willing to, first of all, understand neuroscience. According to him, it is the science behind how the brain and the mind function (Damasio 56).
He states that from careful study of neuroscience through the understanding of neurology and neuro-anatomy, one can understand the working of the mind scientifically. Consciousness is defined as a state where an individual or an animal is awake and not asleep. However, he further argues that philosophically being awake does not necessarily mean you are conscious.
He presents an example of an epileptic patient who may be attacked by a seizure, and although they may be awake during the whole process, they may also be capable of saying and doing things that they may not be able to recall at a later time when the seizure is over. Hence, he presents a counter-argument to his argument and states that the state of consciousness involves the ability to comprehend, understand, see and make sound decisions from what is happening in our surroundings (Damasio 72).
Pinker takes a rather laid back and less argumentative approach to this issue. He argues that the field of neuroscience cannot be used to understand the functionality of the mind (Pinker, 83). According to him, arguing that neuroscience can be used to understand the mind is making the mind act like a computer where it has an input and an output. More so, the mind is then made to act on rules through the various algorithms that it has received just as a computer does.
This is not true or even possible since he had earlier stated that the mind is a result of natural selection and people’s experiences differ about their ages, race, and gender, and it is for this reason that we cannot expect to be able to comprehend the mind. Thus, it is virtually impossible to treat the mind as a computer, that we can easily predict its output the same way as it is possible to predict the output of a computer.
Pinker’s arguments on the psychology of cognition bring to light the true meaning of cognitive science. It is this development that enables us to learn about everything through cognition, which is a process that we had gone through earlier in life (Pinker 112). For instance, his argument on computational theory is one of the greatest reasons as to why we have cognitive science which seeks to understand how we adapt and learn things through cognition.
He argues that unlike computers that can be fed with numerous information and data at once which they can process, the human mind cannot. Acquiring cognitive knowledge or otherwise, cognitive science is something that develops slowly as the mind is fed with less and fewer truths at a time that it, later on, develops to algorithms that govern the cognitive science.
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This argument is true and supported by examples given. For instance, common sense is a matter of reasoning that takes place in the mind but is a result of cognition. Thus, according to him, for a person to acquire common sense, they have gone through a lot of different basic routines that are slowly formed in mind and help in future reasoning.
The problem is that these small details became so common and general that they are ignored. It is this cognition and ability of the mind to reason that makes us understand that when somebody is inside a room they must have entered through the door, and we cannot imagine they did so through the window because such would be unconventional and against our common sense governed by cognition.
On the other hand, Damasio argues that neuroscience is the cause of consciousness. He uses the illustration that the images formed in our minds are due to our sense of essentiality. This is something that neurologists argue as it is developed through a deeper process of the things we see without the need to reason or compare them to our past experiences as argued by Pinker in the case of cognitive science (Damasio 89).
Thus, Damasio differs with the Pinker’s definitions and explanations of consciousness as he uses neuroscience to divide a person’s conscious state into different states that affect and are related to different issues (Damasio 91). He argues that core consciousness affects how someone feels, about being excited or fatigued and the general wellness of an individual. Furthermore, he states that when we have a good feeling and the urge to be great then inwardly in mind, the core consciousness is transformed into a state of extended consciousness.
This new consciousness state is not related to a person’s intelligence or even cognitive ability. It makes the person aware that there is more to life that what they thought is humanly achievable. This successfully manipulates one’s ideas of being successful as such can propel an individual to further heights compared to what they had previously thought that they could be able to achieve.
Damasio also argues that when our consciousness is determined through neurology or neuroscience, it is prone to change. This means that at any instance our autobiographical self will always be changing since the ideas we tend to believe in are affected by our environment or how we perceive things, unlike Pinker’s argument where the consciousness that is defined by cognition never tends to be subjected to change (Damasio 123).
Another sharp contrast between the two authors’ arguments is how Damasio relates the mind to the body and argues that both are needed to create a neurological conscious. Pinker does not seem to relate the two and in essence, does not find a relation on how conscious is affected by cognition through the body even though the body is still needed to carry out what the conscious does tell us to do.
It is evident that without the body then the argument on conscious will be null and void as what we do either in the short term or long term affects our bodies, and that is how we notice we are acting from conscious.
In conclusion, both authors are correct in their respective ways as they have argued their cases and even provided examples as proof of what their argument entails. It is true that both cognitive science and neuroscience affect how our conscious develops since all human beings are subject to common sense, but not all human beings are subject to guilt.
This illustration from my personal view proves that both arguments are right even though there are instances where they appear to be at loggerheads. They both converge on a similar point that is both neuroscience and cognitive science affect our consciousness; they just do not agree on the extent.
Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2000, Print.
Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York, NY: Brilliance Publishers, 2012. Print.