Subjectivity and awareness (consciousness)

For “subject” we normally mean one who acts, i. e. who performs an action, while for “object” we mean one who is affected by an action performed by others. Curiously, we also use the word “subject” in the opposite sense (i.e. passive) to mean one who is “subject” to an authority or who is affected by an action performed by others. But even in this case we can consider the passive subject as one active in the “action” of obeying, following, or respecting someone else.

Speaking of human beings and their behavior, we tend to consider each person as a “subject” (of their active and passive actions and perceptions), as if the person were an indivisible agent that decides from time to time the actions to be taken and the things to be perceived. In fact, whoever says “I”, normally means himself as the subject of his own actions, of his own existence (“I” exist) and of his consciousness or awareness (“I” know that…, I am aware that…, I feel that… etc.). Therefore we can say that subjectivity (i.e. being the subject of one’s own actions and perceptions) coincides with what we call the “I” of the person. The same is true of the other personal pronouns: “you”, “he”, “she”, “we”, “you”, “they” etc. In fact, we use all of these pronouns to refer to certain people as indivisible “subjects” or “agents”.

However, on closer inspection, things are not simple as they seem. In fact, first of all, it is not true that the person, or individual, is indivisible (as the term “individual” would imply). In fact, the person is a system of interacting parts, most of which are excluded from decisions about what to do and how to do it. For example, my feet or kidneys do not normally intervene in decisions about my social behavior.

If all parts of my body are not “subject” to my actions, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, consciousness, and wills, which parts are? That is the question.

Sigmund Freud was one of the first scholars to deal rationally with this problem, resulting in the division of mind into three entities: the “ego” (understood as the conscious self, i. e. the seat of consciousness or awareness), the “es” (understood as all the biological mechanisms and automatisms) and the “superego” (understood as a series of automatisms of cultural origin that exert pressure on the ego in a normative, prescriptive and inhibitory sense). In this sense Freud’s quote “the ego is not master in his own house” is to be understood. In the following, by “I” or “ego” (as a component of the mind) we will mean the “conscious self”.

The great merit of Freud (regardless of the validity of his psychoanalytic theory) was to have taught us that the mind is not something unitary, homogenous, conscious and coherent, but is intead a set of “agents” more or less in agreement with each other, of which only one, the “I” (understood as the conscious self), is aware of itself and of the rest of the world, while all the rest acts autonomously, automatically and independently from the “I”, sometimes exercising authority over it. In other words, Freud has “formalized” the existence of the unconscious (already intuited by philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and writers such as Dostoevsky), attributing to it a number of properties and functions, involving a certain “power” over the conscious self.

Today the existence of the unconscious is generally accepted, even by religious-minded people, although with different connotations, more or less extensive. Consequently, we can say that the conscious self does not coincide with the whole person or the whole mind, but is only a part of it. From this we can infer that there are interactions between the conscious self and the rest of the mind (and of the body), where the first one does not occupy a particular hierarchical position.

The conscious  self is distinguished from the rest of the body, first of all, by its awareness, or consciousness. In fact, by definition it is the only conscious component of the body. This statement does not exclude that in the human body there are other parts with consciousness, but if this were the case, they would be conscious agents not communicating with the “central” one, i.e. is the conscious self, the only one which we are conscious until proven otherwise.

The conscious self can be divided into three intimately related parts in the sense that each depends on the other two:

  • knowledge (the cognitive part)
  • feeling (the emotional part)
  • will (the motivational part)

If any of the parts of this triad were missing, the other two could not exist. In fact, without the cognitive part, i.e. without the possibility to know anything, feelings and will could not be associated with any form, object or concept, and therefore would be “useless” and meaningless from a biological point of view. If the emotional part were missing, will and knowledge could not be associated with any form, object or concept, since nothing would have a “value”, and therefore they would be useless and meaningless from a biological point of view. If the motivational part were missing, the other two would be useless because the person would not be able to want or desire anything, not even to continue living.

It could be argued that there are living beings not endowed with consciousness but able to “know”, “feel” and “want”, but they should be considered unconscious knowledge, feelings and will, and as such would not be part of a “conscious self” and would not be known to it.

The triad of consciousness, i. e. the conscious self, is for me a mystery from both a scientific and a philosophical point of view. A mystery in the sense that we cannot see it nor touch it, nor measure it, nor do we know how it was generated. It is in fact a tautology in the sense that it cannot be explained except in a self-referential way.

Although this triad is a mysterious object, it is the only thing whose existence and importance is certain. All the rest is in fact uncertain, questionable, misleading, hypothetical because it is known and perceived through the triad itself, which we do not know except through its effects and some of its relationships with the rest of the body.

In fact, we know that a person can lose consciousness (for example due to a physical or mental trauma) and then regain it, and we know that certain perceptions or thoughts can evoke a knowledge or a memory, arouse a feeling and activate a will or a desire. We also know that knowledge, feelings, and will are mutually activated, that is, that each influences the other two; we know that they depend on the state of the rest of the body; that they die when the body dies; and that, on the other hand, the body dies or continues to live in a vegetative state if it permanently loses consciousness.

We can therefore speculate about the relationships between the components of the triad and between them and the rest of the body.

The most important things we know in this regard are as follows:

  • feelings extend on a continuum between maximum pleasure and maximum pain, both physical and “mental”;
  • the will tends to maximum pleasure and minimum pain, both “here and now” and in an indefinite future;
  • knowledge allows to elaborate logics (i.e. strategies and tactics) to obtain maximum pleasure and minimum pain;
  • there are things that cause pleasure and things that cause pain;
  • certain pains are associated with potentially deadly situations, and certain pleasures are associated with the preservation of life and its reproduction.

From the above we can assume that the triad knowledge-feeling-will is the most “evolved” (in an evolutionary perspective), i. e. the most recent and sophisticated, thanks to which the human species ensures its conservation and reproduction, and meets its vital needs. We assume in fact that consciousness has “emerged” (we do not know if gradually or suddenly) during evolution.

In the following chapters we will examine the ways in which the elements of the triad intervene in the satisfaction of a person’s needs.

Next chapter: Unconscious.