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Consciousness, intentionality and causality

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Abstract:

According to behavioural theories deriving from pragmatism, gestalt psychology, existentialism, and ecopsychology, knowledge about the world is gained by intentional action followed by learning. In terms of the neurodynamics described here, if the intending of an act comes to awareness through reafference, it is perceived as a cause. If the consequences of an act come to awareness through proprioception and exteroception, they are perceived as an effect. A sequence of such states of awareness comprises consciousness, which can grow in complexity to include self-awareness. Intentional acts do not require awareness, whereas voluntary acts require self-awareness. Awareness of the action/perception cycle provides the cognitive metaphor of linear causality as an agency. Humans apply this metaphor to objects and events in the world to predict and control them, and to assign social responsibility. Thus, linear causality is the bedrock of technology and social contracts.

Complex material systems with distributed non-linear feedback, such as brains and their neural and behavioural activities, cannot be explained by linear causality. They can be said to operate by circular causality without agency. The nature of self-control is described by breaking the circle into a forward limb, the intentional self, and a feedback limb, awareness of the self and its actions. The two limbs are realized through hierarchically stratified kinds of neural activity. Intentional acts are produced by the self-organized microscopic neural activity of cortical and subcortical components in the brain. Awareness supervenes as a macroscopic ordering state, that defers action until the self-organizing microscopic process has reached closure in reflective prediction. Agency, which is removed from the causal hierarchy by the appeal to circularity, re-appears as a metaphor by which events in the world are anthropomorphized, making them appear subject to human control.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, LSA 129, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-3200, USA.

Publication date: January 1, 1999

imp/jcs/1999/00000006/F0020011/995
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