The Instigator
Pro (for)
5 Points
The Contender
Con (against)
0 Points

Consciousness is always awareness-after-the-fact

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 4/14/2015 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 1,289 times Debate No: 73464
Debate Rounds (5)
Comments (13)
Votes (1)




It is a commonly held idea that consciousness is something contemporaneous with thought; I believe that this is an illusion which must be broken in order for us to truly understand ourselves.

Consider the example that Daniel Dennett often cites of becoming conscious of a clock striking. I think that this experience is one that we can all relate to, even if it's not one that we've directly experienced: imagine that you are in a library, engrossed in a good book - in the distance, a church clock starts to strike the time out - at first, being absorbed by the book, we are not aware of the chiming; after one, two or perhaps three strikes, we gradually become aware of the clock singing the hour through the haze of our story and may decide to count the strikes, in order to know the time... when we decide to count, we can check our short-term memory and start to count, picking up the process of counting the sequence at the right point.

Consider also the example of the experiments which have been done at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognition and Brain Sciences that reveal reveal that our decisions are made up to seven seconds before we become consciously aware of them [1].

I suggest that in light of these two examples (and a degree of reflection), it is fair to conclude that we become conscious of things (even our own thoughts and decisions) after the event.

If it is indeed true that consciousness is only ever an after-the-event awareness, even when the subject of investigation is our own thoughts and emotions, this would provide a route to understanding consciousness that avoids the infinite homuncular regress problem which haunts many traditional explanations of consciousness.

It may seem to rob us of something; people may ask "what about free will?" (a topic for another debate but we may touch on it here); it may not seem, at first, to describe what it feels like to be me, as it were... but the alternative, it seems to me, is simply not possible.

if one challenges the resolution, I imagine that one must believe in such a thing as a "conscious choice"; I am specifically suggesting, in this debate, that this phrase, "conscious choice", is a poor one... it has a rough-and-ready meaning that we all understand (a decision made in full conscious awareness of the pertinent facts) - and I'm happy with THAT concept... your brain can make a decision at a time where you are focussing consciously (not consciously focussing, note!) on the problem at hand...

So, does anybody think that consciousness comes first? It strikes me that anybody who ascribes consciousness to the soul probably does... bring it on :-)



Because Pro uses the word "always" in his statement, I need only demonstrate a single satisfactory counter-example to show that Pro's claim is false. The examples I intend to point to are where the awareness is simultaneous with the event, as opposed to after the event.

I am in general with Pro that we are consciously aware of events causing sensory input only after the event has already occurred. With Pro's example of a clock striking, the sound waves must first travel to the ear before they can be perceived. Sound does not travel instantaneously, nor does light. This would seem to exclude simultaneous consciousness and occurrence of events observed audibly or visually. In fact, even with events involving the sense of touch, such as a pin-prick on the finger, the sensory neurons in the finger must first transmit the information to those neurons in the brain before perception of the event occurs. Nothing, not even information, can travel faster than the speed of light. So, it would seem there will always be a delay unless the use of the senses is not required for the awareness or if the distance between the physical event in question and the perceiving tissue in the brain is exactly zero. This brings me to my counter-examples:

1. Intellectual awareness of ongoing events for which the use of the senses is not required. Specific examples: the rotation of the earth, the ebb and flow of the tides, the generation of electricity, etc. When we dwell upon events like these, we are consciously aware of them
as they occur, not "after-the-fact".

2. Thought - Pro specifically disavows thought as an exception. (See R1: "consciousness is only ever an after-the-event awareness, even when the subject of investigation is our own thoughts") There is an observable physical phenomenon associated with thought - The neurons that are doing the "thinking" are also "firing" while thought occurs. When we dwell upon this physical phenomenon, the distance between the physical phenomenon and the perceiving tissue is exactly zero. There is zero delay between perception and awareness for this case.

These are the two examples that I would like to draw attention to.
Debate Round No. 1


Thanks for accepting,

Con asks us to consider the case of "Intellectual awareness of ongoing events".

Con cites three examples and I'll wrestle with them all:

1. Being consciously aware of the rotation of the Earth

I'm not sure that one can be consciously aware of the rotation of the Earth. I can be aware of the concept that the Earth rotates; I can dwell upon that concept. I could watch a live feed of the Earth from the International Space Station. I can focus all my attention on this notion that the Earth is spinning... all the while the Earth is spinning. But what if it weren't? I could conceivably be light seconds away from Earth watching this live feed from the ISS, when the Earth blew up. I'd still be considering the rotation of the Earth whilst it wasn't, in fact, occurring. I have no way of being instantly connected to the knowledge of the Earth spinning in a way that I feel Con has already acknowledged.

So, what of my mental model? In there, somewhere, buried between my ears, I can concentrate on an idea for a while. What makes me decide to do so? Whatever you do, don't think about elephants in space. No, really stop thinking about them. Now, take that silly bubble-helmet off that pachyderm! What would you to do with the trunk? No, I'll stop that game now but really try not to think about it. Take conscious control of your own thoughts. It's not a thing that one can do. One becomes aware of ones thoughts AFTER one has them. Therefore your self-awareness module, if you will, cannot control your thoughts. They fly through your head like untold dreams, growing, shrinking, being fed by other thoughts or dwindling into insignificance. You (conscious you, that is) can't control them any more than you can control the waves on the ocean. When would you have decided to stop "being consciously aware of the rotation of the Earth" from before? When did you? Was it a conscious choice to stop thinking about the rotation? No such thing! Your brain might have been distracted, either by a sensory input or by some inner stirring growing in strength enough to drown out the clammer of thoughts of rotation... but that was not a conscious thought. Thoughts come and go unbidden. When did you stop thinking about elephants? Why? Was that decision conscious?

2. the ebb and flow of the tides

How beautiful it is to dwell upon the ebb and flow of tides... and how cryptic that you cannot tell, at first, which direction that process is going... sit awhile at a beach in your mind, if you will, and watch the tide come in. Really see it. You're sitting on a cliff, looking down a curving beach; the sea is lapping up onto the rocks underneath you, spraying salty flecks into the electrically charged air. You watch as the deep sea creeps up the beach in rolling, lapping, panting motions; wave upon wave upon wave... water moving at once in, at once out. Different parts of the beach being hit by the same waves at different times. Now, tell, me... later on, when the tide is going out, the sea retreating into the distance, quieter now, night seeming to come close as the sea returns to Poseidon's keeping away in the deep dark distance... at what point did the tide turn, from in to out? Where was it's peak? Which was the last wave that was from the army of "coming in waves"? Which was the first from the "going out waves"? Which wave was on the cusp? Which point, which moment? This is like what youness is like: your self-conscious is a bit like the beach and the waves approaching are little ideas... little ideas that, as a group, form a vast purposeful lunge... the tide comes in and you are conscious of a host of microthoughts pushing in one direction... how many of those microthoughts belong to the thrust of the idea coming in, how many to the thrust of moving onto the next thought? Which microthought turned the tide? Will you even know about it until it hits the shore? Where did the waves COME from? Far, far away in the dim, dark, wet subconscious. The waves have to travel to the shore. That takes time. And they are in a race with many other thoughts, all jostling for prime position, to get to the beach first, having picked up strength from riding on the backs of other thoughts.

3. generation of electricity, etc.

Unfortunately, I don't know what Con means when asking us to consider "intelectual awareness of the generation of electricity". How dare I accuse Con of being cryptic after my meandering monologue? Sorry!

Pro's second counterexample, I hope, is more promising; I'll try to stick to the point, now :)

Con says:
The neurons that are doing the "thinking" are also "firing" while thought occurs. When we dwell upon this physical phenomenon, the distance between the physical phenomenon and the perceiving tissue is exactly zero. There is zero delay between perception and awareness for this case.

But this belies a very false way of thinking about consciousness. Are you trying to identify one neuron that represents the self-conscious? That's like trying to find the wave that turned the tide. Consciousness is an emergent property that requires more than one neuron. Otherwise, I suppose that you think worms are self-conscious... indeed, how about amoebas? Some amoebae [1] are single-celled animals that build shells to protect themselves. This is a competence without consciousness!

Consider that whilst the amoeba is one cell (and almost certainly never thinks "I feel naked and vulnerable, i must build a shell"), the human brain is comprised of maybe 100 billion cells (each as complex as the amoeba, if not more so)... no one brain cell experiences consciousness. Consciousness is an emergent property that requires the interaction of many cells. Like the beach, you cannot say which wave was the turning point.

When Con says "the distance between the physical phenomenon and the perceiving tissue is exactly zero", this is not true... but worse, it's not even wrong. Neurons do not perceive anything. What is "perceiving tissue"? It sounds rather magical. Can I get a petri-dish full of "perceiving tissue"? Is it unethical to smash that petri-dish?

Consider an ant colony; when one ant finds a food source, it can tell other ants to "come, feast" using chemical markers. These may be related to the size and quality of the meal. What would happen if you put two competing food sources into range of an ant colony? Imagine that some ants went for one source, but more ants went for the more energy-rich source (that path got reinforced by more chemical stimulants of ants triumphantly returning home with some sugary treat). Now, could we say that the ant colony decided to dedicate more ants towards the sugary treat? WHEN did the ant colony DECIDE to PREFER the sugary treat? Can we find that decision in a certain ant? Should we even be looking? When did the brain decide to think about elephants in space? Which neuron did that? Should we even be looking? When will your neuron-colony find a more compelling treat to devour than space-elephants? When it does, at what point would it have decided to dedicate more neurons to another task? Was any one neuron responsible for this change? Can we disect it to find a unit of consciousness? Self-conscioussness can only occur after the self has thought a thing. Your noticing a bunch of neurons in your head responding (en masse) a certain way is a bit like you in the thought experiment observing a bunch of water molecules responding (en masse) a certain way... except we can't have you sitting up on a cliff, for fear of infinite homuncular regress...

"You" do have to be the sea, in a way (which is what Con is talking to when saying that perceiving IS the physical phenomenon)... I agree 100% that the phenomenological experience is caused by neurons firing (or some such physical process)... but you can't zoom in on one neuron's activity and see contemperanous consciousness... and a "thought" is more than a neuron firing... a bit like a wave is more than one water molecule moving... oh, I agree that molecules move when the sea waves... I just don't think that you can define everything that's going on by studying a single water molecule... somehow, there is a transference of energy through the sea, or meaning through the brain... via moving molecules or firing neurons... but, this is the weird thing... we don't really experience consciousness in the way that we have traditionally told the story to ourselves.

Once you realise that no decisions are conscious (even what to think about, even thinking), I think that helps clear up the confusion. Do not think that you do any thinking in your conscious mind. If you think that anything is *going on* in consciousness, I think we're back to infinite homuncular regress. Consciousness itself strikes me as an illusion, in a way...

If your brain becomes overwhelmed by one wave (like a tsunami), later on this fact will remain in short-term memory. Self awareness is really the trick that the brain achieves by using what's going on in itself as an input (like sensory input).

Consider that if you accidentally burn your finger, your spine may have made a decision to recoil your hand before your brain has even become aware of the unfolding drama... by the time your brain starts to receive information regarding a possibly burning finger, the signal is well on the way to the arm to recoil... well, I think consciousness is a little like this... except you have no homunculus.

Consider this: if you looked at a single water molecule, it just travels up and down... which way is the wave passing through it to make it bob so? One molecule may stay still as two waves pass in different directions through that molecule. Neurons are like this. Thoughts are more than individually firing neurons; they are like waves.

Consciousness is distributed! The beach is not really a good analogy; you are the entire ocean.



Thanks for debating. This debate is turning out to be one of the more enjoyable ones I've had on the site.

I intend to confine my discussion of the counter examples to conscious awareness of the rotation of the earth and to thought. I do this because I want to avoid losing sight of the forest for the trees in a protracted discussion over a multitude of examples as it is only necessary to demonstrate one counter example to justify my position.

Intellectual awareness of the earth's rotation -

Pro protests my example of being consciously aware of the rotation of the earth by drawing attention to the lack of absolute certainty. This does not disqualify the counter example. With Pro's own example of a clock striking, the person who heard the clock strike also had a lack of absolute certainty about what had actually occurred. The person could have been dreaming, hallucinating, or even in the matrix. Nonetheless, Pro considered the person to be consciously aware of the event, albeit after the fact.

The example of the earth's rotation was chosen because the level of certainty associated with the phenomenon is very high. (Hence the idiom "as sure as the sunrise") This level of certainty is comparable to that of direct observation, and a lack of absolute certainty is not a reasonable basis to disregard this counter example.

Pro brought up another point regarding the rotation of the earth. Pro stated that a lack of an instant connection between the knowledge and the person disqualifies the counter example. ("I have no way of being instantly connected to the knowledge of the Earth spinning in a way that I feel Con has already acknowledged.") I'm not sure exactly what Pro meant by this. Knowledge is stored in our brains and we are instantly connected to this database of facts through the mind's eye. (Knowledge generally being justified beliefs which are objectively true) I suspect that Pro may have been protesting the lack of sensory input but didn't articulate his objection clearly. If that is the case, then I must draw attention to the fact that sensory input isn't required to be consciously aware of something. All that is necessary for conscious awareness is for someone to be aware of some tidbit of knowledge, and for that awareness to form part of their conscious experience. A person simply thinking about a fact that they are aware of makes them consciously aware of that fact, for the mind's eye forms a substantial part of our conscious experiences.

Pro also draws attention to the lack of control we exercise over our own thought processes, but I do not see how a lack of control over our thoughts would impact whether or not we are consciously aware of certain things. I see lots of questions in this portion of Pro's response, but not many assertions that appear relevant to determining whether or not the example of intellectual awareness of the rotation of the earth is a satisfactory counter example to Pro's claim.

Restating my position on this example for clarity's sake - We are aware of the earth's rotation. When we think about it we are then conscious of it as well. If we're aware of it and we're thinking about it, we are then consciously aware of it as it occurs.

Thought -

Con disputes many implied factual assertions about the nature of consciousness I made in the prior round. My positions on the nature of consciousness, neurons, and "perceiving tissues" are reasonably subject to dispute, but whether or not these positions are correct isn't necessarily material to whether or not thought serves as a satisfactory counter example to Pro's claim. In an attempt to avoid debating immaterial facts, I will restate my argument with less implied factual assertions:

Pro's Claim: Consciousness is always awareness after the fact.

Argument: Thought is an exception to Pro's claim.

When we think, neurons fire more frequently in our brains. We are able to directly detect whether or not we are thinking. Since we are able to directly detect whether or not we are thinking, we are able to directly detect whether or not the neurons in our brains are firing more frequently.

This increased rate of fire is a physical phenomenon that occurs simultaneously with thought, as opposed to after the fact. Our consciousness isn't in the past - It's in the present. Suppose a man were to think about the increased rate of fire of the neurons in his brain that's resulting from his thoughts on the subject. He would certainly be aware that he was thinking. Since he would be thinking about it he would be conscious of the physical phenomenon. He would also be directly detecting that physical phenomenon empirically. He would be aware of it. He would be conscious of it. This would occur simultaneously with the physical phenomenon in question, not after the fact.

I look forward to Pro's response.

Debate Round No. 2


Waves: Mexican, Water and Brain

One of the interesting properties of waves (at least in some circumstances) is that they travel through a medium in a direction perpendicular to the direction of the movement of any component of the medium. A tsunami wave can travel through across the ocean at 500 miles per hour, but no one water molecule is actually travelling horizontally at that speed.

Consider, if you will, a stadium full of people performing a Mexican wave. The wave may travel all the way around the stadium in seconds... has any one person run round the stadium? What, then, has "travelled around the stadium"?

If a tsunami is started by a volcano dumping a landslide into the ocean and then at some point 8 minutes later (and 400 miles away), a village is destroyed, what has travelled over the ocean? Hint: the answer is not "water molecules".

Now, it turns out that liquid water molecules are always doing a random dance, as a result of their temperature. It turns out that I may be able to find a single water molecule that is travelling downwards whilst most of its near neighbours are travelling upwards (to facilitate a wave passing through). If I zoom in and study the actions of a single water molecule, I discover precisely nothing about what's going on... this is because what's going on is an emmergent property that requires lots of water molecules.

Consider this... I will zoom in on a water molecule somewhere in the universe. There, we've zoomed right in. Can you see it? Can you visualise that water molecule? It's made up of one Oxygen atom in the centre and two Hydrogen atoms attached to that Oxygen atom. Now, you may have as much information as you would like to gather about this molecule, about this complex system. What I want to know is: is this water molecule part of a gas (hot water vapour), a liquid or a solid (cold ice)?

I hope that the gentle reader will understand my purpose: when we are studying macroscopic properties that are emergent, and dependent on multiple components, we must not "zoom in" too far, for fear of losing track of the really important story. You need lots of water molecules to produce a "wave"... likewise, you need lots of neurons to produce a "thought".

I am suggesting, in a way, that consciousness does have some "magic" quality to it. Not, of course, in a non-materialistic way (that would be a mistake that as a rational atheist I would be ashamed to make)... I mean in the same way as a wave is "magic"... in the same way that there is something going on beyond the obvious movement of water molecules in a wave. The water is the medium and nothing about the wave involves material other than the medium... but the wave is an emergent property of the medium of the sea. Call this "magic", if you like. I call it that because I can't think of a better term to describe that ethereal quality of something which seems to be on a level one up from the mundane facts of the brutal mechanics of water molecules moving or neurons firing.

Now, since I am soundly rejecting the idea of "perceiving tissue", what do I have left? I know all about neurons and I accept that their action is, in one sense, all that's going on. Like the water molecules in the sea, that's all you've got... but there can be some "magic" energetic or informational transference. I like the term "brainwave".

So, how can I put any time distance between "perceiving" and "perceiving tissue"? Remember that I don't accept the idea of "perceiving tissue" but I'm still prepared to try to answer the spirit of the question. I must do so on a higher level than that of neurons firing, though.

Let me ask you this by way of analogy: Does the wave move before the water molecules move, or do the water molecules move first, and the wave happens second? I think that I know the answer I'll get to that question: they are, in fact, simultaneous. Okay, I see your point... but... HOW or WHY did the wave start? When, exactly, did the wave start? AND, is consciousness something more than a single wave?

I like the idea of a brain as an ocean. We can see gusts of wind conspiring to make small ripples that become waves; this is the sort of thing that I like to imagine going on when one is in a contemplative state. Then again, we can see a landslide causing a tsunami, and this I see like an alarm clock forcing consciousness from an otherwise peaceful ocean.

BUT the analogy fails to understand the feedback loops that exist in a human brain. The human brain can respond to sensory input, but crucially it can also respond to fluctuations in its own state. This, I suppose, is the essence of thought and, ultimately, of self-consciousness (the awareness of ones own thoughts).

Either way, we have an input causing a wave. Something you see could make you think... where did that stimulus start? Light hit the retina, signals travelled up the optic nerve, basic processing was performed, the pattern so created was offered to the rest of the brain to see if there was some memory or some pattern that fit enough to cause attention... if so, some parts of the brain would fire up (like waves rippling from a stone being dropped in a pool) and your brain would start processing information about something that your eyes had seen... perhaps the eyes would be told to "go back and have another look" in a saccade that lasts less than a fifth of a second, your eyes would return to gather more information and (like arm shooting away from fire as the very first signal gets to your brain) your self-awareness (consciousness) would not yet be aware, although the message "something interesting is going on" will be set in motion. The mistake that I think many people (including Con) make is thinking that somehow, the idea reaches some decision centre, some "perceiving tissue", some homunculus. This is false and drives us (unnecessarily) into the waiting arms of Cartesian Dualism.

SO, that's talking about responding to external stimuli... what about internal stimuli? I might find that I have 5 minutes spare and sit down to check in on the progress of the day; "is there something important I've forgotten? What are my priorities?"... this process is one in which the brain will calm down and thus be increasingly sensitive to any parts of the brain that wish to "put their hand up" and say "listen to me: what about the cat food!?"... no immediate external influence brought the idea "catfood" unbidden to my head... sitting down for five minutes, I may not have literally set eyes on a cat (even subconsciously, although this may have happened, my point is it doesn't need to have). I suggest that there was a part of the brain that was essentially thinking about cats (on a very slow backburner) all the while... also, that this part of the brain has been trained to speak up in silence... inner silence can be as much of a trigger to thought as inner turmoil... so, silence in the brain causes some part that was as yet silent to fire up... was it a conscious choice to fire up that part of the brain and think of cats? No, how could it be!? How could your conscious mind "decide" to think about cats, had the notion of cats not occurred already?

Thoughts come, unbidden, into our conscious awareness... a process of thought, of waves travelling through neurons, must be in place before we become consciously aware that we are thinking of cats.

This is the key difference between my point of view and cons: Con sees thoughts as being neurons firing. I see thoughts as being like waves travelling through neurons.

I cannot conceive of any conscious entity in any reality in which this rule could be broken: one becomes aware of one's own thoughts after those thoughts have their birth. Whilst a single neuron firing could represent the birth of a thought (or may just dwindle into insignificance), it does not represent that thought. The thought is more than a single neuron firing (there is no "perceiving tissue"); the thought is a wave... by the time you are conscious of that thought, it's existence (as a WAVE) is already a reality. When did the wave start? Were you conscious of that start? No way!

It's very like asking "is the tide coming in or going out"... you cannot put your finger on it... or like looking at one column of water rising and falling to facilitate the passing of a wave, where you cannot tell from a linear column of water in which direction any waves must be passing through. Indeed, two waves could pass through one column in such a way that the column didn't move at all! Studying one part at too high a zoom resolution makes you miss the important action (like the water molecule we envisaged earlier that may be gas, liquid or solid).

Consciousness is HARD to understand. But one should not make the mistake of thinking that it is the simple product of a firing neuron... neurons do fire, but we need to step up to the level of understanding the traversal of meaning through brain waves to understand consciousness, and we musn't focus on one neuron firing in order to see what's going on... in the same way, water molecules in the sea do rise and fall, but we need to step up to the level of understanding the traversal of energy through waves to understand tsunamis, and we musn't focus on one water molecule rising or falling to see what's going on.

For now, I rest my case. I promise to return to specific rebuttals in a future round, but I wanted to spend some time making my position clearer first.


Pro asserts that "you need lots of neurons to produce a 'thought' "; rejects "the idea of 'perceiving tissue' "; and states that "a process of thought ... must be in place before we become consciously aware that we are thinking of [something]." Pro states that the "key difference between [his] point of view and [mine]" is that "[I] see thoughts as being neurons firing" while Pro sees "thoughts as being like waves travelling through neurons."

My response: So what? Even if we accept all of these assertions as true, none of them matter. These assertions are not material to determining whether or not Pro's claim that "consciousness is always awareness after the fact" is true or false.

Within Pro's claim, the words "the fact" seem to refer to any physical phenomenon, as Pro used the example of a clock striking. The example of a physical phoenomenon I cited was the increased rate of fire of neurons that coincide with thought. When we think about this phenomenon, it occurs simultaneously with our conscious awareness of it. In fact, Pro concedes this point:

Does the wave move before the water molecules move, or do the water molecules move first, and the wave happens second? I think that I know the answer I'll get to that question: they are, in fact, simultaneous. Okay, I see your point... but... HOW or WHY did the wave start? When, exactly, did the wave start? AND, is consciousness something more than a single wave?

After conceding the point, Pro then asks many questions, but the answers to these questions don't matter - It doesn't matter that thoughts are precipitated by a cause, require lots of neurons, or could be like waves. What matters is that a physical phenomenon - an increased rate of firing neurons - and conscious awareness of that phenomenon are happening at the same time. This is a satisfactory counter example to Pro's claim that "consciousness is always awareness after the fact." It should be clear at this point that Pro's assertion is not true.

Debate Round No. 3


I beg, of course, to differ!

Con quoted me (correctly) as saying "a process of thought must be in place before we become consciously aware".

Let me expound that idea somewhat: When the volcano erupts, has the tsunami begun? Surely all we have, at first, is a landslide; a lanslide is not a wave, and it's not a tsunami. As the material tumbles down the side of the volcano, a process is in motion that will wipe out a ton of villagers, but the tsunami hasn't begun yet. I suppose that the tsunami begins as the initial rock-fall drags water molecules downwards - there is the inception of the wave! As yet, no villagers are hurt; still the mighty wave must cross the great ocean. Is one conscious of the thought at this point in the analagous story?

I am sure that nobody is conscious of a brainwave at its inception; that, I suppose, is the entire point that I'm making. The purpose of the brainwave is certainly not (originally) to achieve your self-awareness (which is a cool by-product of the brain); it's more like a signal to all around asking "have you got any ideas harmonious with this one?"; when a part of the brain resonantes with such a pattern, it fires in a special way that creates its own causal chain of ripples from this new point (this is all sub-conscious).

The key to seeing my point is to realise that consciousness is distributed across neurons and that a brainwave is distributed in time. That consciousness is distributed across neurons is equivalent to my rejection of "perceiving tissue"; there are no special "consciousness neurons". That the brainwave is distributed in time means that the meaning can predate any consequence; note that not all thoughts make it to self-conscious awareness... so as the brain is having a thought, your consciousness is not aware of it at first... how could it be? You'd be swamped by tens of thousands of false-starts and mini-ideas every second! Only ideas (think of them like ripples) that survive long enough and large enough ever make it into self-conscious awareness. The self-awareness follows on from the self-being.

Has anybody ever had the experience of working on a puzzle of one form or another subconsciously? This happens to me a lot, with crosswords, or trying to remember a fact, or a date, or a name... the puzzle is something that you dedicate all your effort to for a while, can't solve, so you give up.

Half an hour later, in the middle of dinner, you suddenly and incongruously announce to the table (or keep it quiet) "AMANDA! that was the name I was looking for"! You realise that, in fact, your subconscious mind has been plugging away in the background, looking for answers... you were not conscious of that fact... you weren't choosing this to be the case... you weren't driving that process (nor could you stop it at will).

Occasionally, before you found your answer, you might have had hints that the subconscious hunt was going on, though... you might have noticed that when somebody else said "they haven't named the baby yet", your brain resonated with the idea a little strongly (since it was still engaged in a hunt for a name) and you were distracted enough by a quick reverie that you missed the part of the conversation that your friend was talking about the parents considering "Zoltan, destroyer of Worlds" (which had caused the table to laugh, bringing your conscious focus back into the room).

And how about that final moment when you catch the answer? Maybe something about your conversation with your friends did jog a memory; perhaps a friend was saying "It's a bit like Francis Drake fighting the Spanish armada mumble mumble bleur bleur..." - the rest of your friend's sentence is lost by another little reverie that can be later explained in words as "armada? armada...? amada... AMANDA!".

My point in this story being that your subconscious may be up to a number of things without your knowledge and it's only when the subconscious "thinks it's onto something" that your conscious mind becomes aware; only, I don't think that we should seperate the two as strongly as that, in the sense that there's no homunculus and the subconscious mind doesn't have to "signal" to the conscious mind since they are one and the same physical thing.

Here's an analogy for what I'm describing (it's really hard to put some of these ideas into words, bear with me!):

Self-consciousness is like a resonance; it's like an echo; it's like a feedback loop... we are self-aware of the loudest part of the brain (the most echoey part) at any given time.

So, here's my entire idea in a nutshell: think of a thought as being like a whisper in a great hall, competing with many other quiet noises for space - this whisper gets caught in a particular niche and echoes; it is boosted, like a pinball stuck between two mushrooms, gaining a beautiful resonance before fading and being replaced by louder noises throughout the hall. Consciousness is that resonance.

Now, answer me this: when exactly did consciousness start? When the whisper was once whispered? When the whisper first found the perfect niche to resonate in? Upon powering up on the pinball mushrooms? The first bounce, or the second?

Since we're now talking about a sound wave, the medium is compressive waves in air so, by analogy, the neurons are like the air molecules in this great hall. Which air molecule moving was responsible for the resonance? What good does it do us to look at this level of detail?

The shape of the hall is a complex space, with niches and balconies and storeys and rooms and great flights of stairs and statues; the shape of the hall is your personality, your history, your memory. The air is made up of one hundred billion neurons. Whispers pass through your great hall, tiny chatters between adjacent pockets of air; occasionally whispers find the perfect shape in the wall and bounce around in a positive feedback loop producing strange harmonies. These strange harmonies are your consciousness. These harmonies can come from anywhere in the great hall; a room dedicated to music may occasionally sing out; another time, a buzz may come from the kitchen - and that particular buzz might reach a statue on a wall in a dark recess on the top floor that has remained silent for years but now converts it into a beautiful hum, singing a beautiful song that hasn't been heard for years.

I do apologise for taking my sweet time building up enough analogies to convey my meaning, but I fear that it's a complex model that I have in my head and I'm only really committing it to the scrutiny of others for the first time in this debate!

So, I think I'm there (I hope I'm there) - I trust that the gentle reader will find food for thought. Perhaps one or two gentle readers may actually end up agreeing with me that it's as hard to tell when consciousness actually happened as it is to tell which was the last wave before the tide changed direction; furthermore, to all intents and purposes, speaking plainly, we might reasonably say:

"Consciousness is always awareness after the fact (even when the fact is your own thoughts)"

If you're still not convinced, please spend a few minutes going back over what I've said about resonance. Allow me just my analogy of consciousness being resonance in a great hall of whispers and I think you'll see my meaning. I hope that you do; the thought of it quite tickled me with its beauty.


Thank you for your argument.

Let us examine this statement:

"Conscious is always awareness after the fact."

The following statement seems to be Pro's "thesis":

"I am sure that nobody is conscious of a brainwave at its inception; that, I suppose, is the entire point that I'm making."

Pro uses many metaphors, but what I think he saying in so many words can be largely explained with this drawing:

The green line represents a "brainwave intensity" threshold for conscious awareness.

Pro argues that "the thought" actually began before you were consciously aware of it. For brevity's sake, this is not disputed. However, there is a problem with Pro's argument - Pro doesn't get to pick and choose which phenomena are cited as exceptions to Pro's claim - I do. Pro desires to designate the phenomenon in question to be that portion of a thought which occurs before "brainwave intensity" is above the green line. Since I get to choose the phenomenon, all I need to do is to designate the phenomenon as the portion of a "thought" which occurs above the green line. We are consciously aware of this portion of a thought as it occurs even though we may not have been consciously aware of the events leading up to its occurrence.

Debate Round No. 4


I wonder if Con has, over the course of the debate, come to agree with me that consciousness of a thought always comes after the inception of that thought. If I have persuaded anybody (especially my opponent) of this idea, I think I have done well in achieving my goal. Whether the gentle voters will agree with the resolution (even accepting that idea) may come down to semantics.

Con seems to have grasped the thrust of my argument; I think that there is less than a hair's breadth between us now. I don't see consciousness as being one particular wave, as Con's lovely image shows, but for my summing up I can work with it.

Con says:
"We are consciously aware of this portion of a thought as it occurs even though we may not have been consciously aware of the events leading up to its occurrence."

And now I must ask what "a portion of a thought" is... for, it seems to me, I have pushed Pro's defensive line backwards to the point where all that is left is this: the only thing that consciousness could be said to not be stricly after is, in fact, itself. And I don't really think that it's fair to expect me to be arguing that consciousness happens strictly after consciousness. My point is that any idea, any sensory input, any decision, any thought, any impulse - all of these things start before we are consciously aware of them!

In any meaningful sense, I conclude, consciousness is always awareness-after-the-fact.

I thank my opponent for a thoroughly enjoyable debate and I leave myself in the hands of the gentle voters.


Pro has left unaddressed my arguments from round 3 regarding awareness of the earth’s rotation.

Pro is apparently suffering from a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word “thought.” Pro considers a “thought” to include those unconscious events which cause that thought. This is not correct. In common parlance, a “thought” is a strictly conscious event which occurs in the mind and does not encompass the unconscious happenings which cause the thought in question. There is, in fact, a very long chain of causation leading up to any particular thought. This line of causation stretches back to the origin of the universe. The line is drawn at consciousness. It is the green line in my illustration from the prior round.

Pro states that it isn’t fair expect Pro to “be arguing that consciousness happens strictly after consciousness.” I wouldn’t expect Pro to defend such a position, except that Pro adopted that position in round 1, perhaps through inadvertence related to Pro’s misunderstanding of the meaning of the word “thought”, when he stated the following: “we become conscious of things (even our own thoughts and decisions) after the event”.

Pro’s claim is that “consciousness is always awareness after the fact.” Pro desires “the fact” to be a cause of the conscious event in question because an effect is always after a cause. This makes perfect sense. However, when there is no causal relationship between a conscious event and “the fact”, the two can occur simultaneously. This is the case with thoughts, which are conscious events themselves, and with an awareness of the earth’s rotation.

Consciousness is not always awareness after the fact because there are exceptions to this absolute claim.

Kudos to anyone who votes on this after seriously considering our arguments. I know this is a long one.

Debate Round No. 5
13 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by Chaosism 3 years ago
Sorry about that. I meant to say "the *only* use of sources". I elaborate a little on it, this time.
Posted by bluesteel 3 years ago
>Reported vote: Chaosism // Moderator action: REMOVED<

5 points to Pro (arguments, sources). Reasons for voting decision: Both participants did well. Conduct was good by both. Spelling Grammar was even. Pro made the best use of sources. The argument of an ongoing event is explained well enough by Pro's long-winded explanations and analogies, even though it was not directly addressed. The argument, basically "thinking about thinking", is Con's strongest argument, but one must be begin to form thoughts of one's consciousness before one can become conscious of it as gathered by Pro's arguments.

[*Reason for removal*] Too generic on sources: "made the best use."
Posted by Death23 3 years ago
Yes, the reasoning is along those lines.
Posted by AndyHood 3 years ago
Sorry, people, the exploring the mind link seems to have picked up a trailing space in the URL. You can follow the link, remove the extra space and reload or use this link (I can't edit the debate now it's accepted):
Posted by AndyHood 3 years ago
we become conscious of things (even our own thoughts and decisions) after the event

This is a statement that I made in the opening; if the resolution is true, then it is true. If it is false, the resolution is false... And I'll wager you think it's wrong... Or do you accept that idea?
Posted by Death23 3 years ago
My intention is to demonstrate exceptions to Pro's claim.
Posted by Mathgeekjoe 3 years ago
Anyways, does con win if they are able to prove that consciences doesn't "always" happen after the fact. It is a clear fact that there are many situations that conscience occurs afterwards most of the time.
Posted by Mathgeekjoe 3 years ago
The link isn't working.
Posted by AlphaTBITW 3 years ago
In fact, who in their right minds would make such a debate? Unless it's just free wins on ignorant people.
Posted by AlphaTBITW 3 years ago
Who in their right mind would accept such a debate? I mean, that's like debating that we hear a sound at the exact time the sound is made.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by Chaosism 3 years ago
Agreed with before the debate:--Vote Checkmark0 points
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Made more convincing arguments:Vote Checkmark--3 points
Used the most reliable sources:Vote Checkmark--2 points
Total points awarded:50 
Reasons for voting decision: Reasons for voting decision: Both participants did well. Conduct was good by both. Spelling Grammar was even. Pro had the only use of sources, although wiki and YouTube are not as strong as his first source. The argument of an ongoing event is explained well enough by Pro's long-winded explanations and analogies, even though it was not directly addressed. The argument, basically "thinking about thinking", is Con's strongest argument, but one must be begin to form thoughts of one's consciousness before one can become conscious of it as gathered by Pro's arguments.