The Spontaneity of Consciousness

Robert Hanna and Evan Thompson

2003. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 29.

It is now conventional wisdom that conscious experience — or in Nagel’s canonical characterization, “what it is like to be” for an organism — is what makes the mind-body problem so intractable. By the same token, our current conceptions of the mind-body relation are inadequate and some conceptual development is urgently needed. Our overall aim in this paper is to make some progress towards that conceptual development. We first examine a currently neglected, yet fundamental aspect of consciousness. This aspect is the spontaneity of consciousness, by which we mean its inner plasticity and inner purposiveness. We then sketch a “neurophenomenological” framework for thinking about the relationship between the spontaneity of consciousness and dynamic patterns of brain activity as studied in cognitive neuroscience. We conclude by proposing that the conscious mentality of sentient organisms or animals is active and dynamic, and that this “enactive” conception of consciousness can help us to move beyond the classical dichotomy between materialism and dualism.

Keywords: cognitive science, consciousness, enactive, mind, neurophenomenology.

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