Personality Theory:
A Biosocial Approach

C. George Boeree, PhD
Psychology Department
Shippensburg University

© Copyright C. George Boeree 2009



Consciousness

“What is consciousness” is not a single question, but a whole set of questions.  Here are just a few:
The list could go on, and each question analyzed into more detailed questions, but this is more than enough to start with.  The purpose of this chapter is to develop a coherent set of general answers to these questions from a naturalistic perspective.

Qualities

Science, in order to go beyond the subjective, is forced to deal with reality via measurement. If I have a meter stick and you have a meter stick, our judgements of some event are more likely to be “objective.” And so we have measured everything in sight and claimed understanding. What is “blue?”  It is a wavelength of light, in the neighborhood of 475 nm (nanometers, Greek for "little tiny baby meters").

The error we commonly make is to believe that the measurement explains the quality. Instead, the wavelength is actually no more than a measurement of the quality. Blue is first, then we describe the blue as having a characteristic:  If approached in a certain way (the measurement), it appears to involve light waves that measure 475 nm.  475 nm is an abstraction from the quality of blue and does not exhaust the phenomenon.

To borrow one of J. J. Gibson’s (1979) famous phrases, the experiential quality we call blue is “in the light.” There is no need to wonder how we turn wavelengths into blue. And, again following Gibson, there is no need to wonder how we “bind” the “dots” of sensory information together in time and space: We are only perceiving what is, in fact, already there for us, in the light, the sound, the touch, and so on.  Perceptual consciousness is external to us, and a better way to approach it is to say that we are "open" to certain real qualities (and, of course, closed to many more).

I like to think of the world is composed of nothing but qualities - colors, sounds, temperatures, shapes, textures, movements, images, feelings, and so on, all of them simply there, ready for someone to perceive.

Unlike materialists, I would not reduce these qualities to atoms or energies or anything “physical”. To me, these atoms and such are just explanatory devices, good for helping us to predict and control, especially when we can’t see what’s going on.  But they are nothing without the qualities they refer to.

However, when a tree falls in the forest, I'm certain that the sound happens, whether there is someone there to hear it or not.  Unlike philosophers like Bishop Berkeley, I don’t think that all of these qualities require the presence of a mind (even God's) to exist;  some do, but others don’t.  Further, I believe there are plenty of qualities - an infinity of them, perhaps - that we do not and cannot perceive at all.  Some animals, for example, can hear sounds and see colors we cannot.  These sounds and colors are every bit as real and rich as a high C or blue-green. Neither does it require that there be representations of things "in" our minds or brains:  There are no "blue" neural firings or "C major" neurotransmitters. Nor are there any mysterious entities  such as "qualia" in our heads.

Although the question of how or why we experience qualities is sometimes referred to as the “hard problem” of consciousness studies (Chalmers, 1995), it is only difficult if one insists on taking a strong materialistic approach. Although materialism is usually associated with empirical science, the existence of matter is in fact not empirically demonstrable.  As Bishop Berkeley (1710) and later David Hume (1748) and others argued so well, we never “see” matter; we only experience various forms and qualities which, due to their consistency, we choose to label matter.  We then take a giant leap to the idea that this matter is fundamental to everything else.

Nevertheless, we call some of these qualities “matter” and some we call "mind." "Matter" includes the ones that emphasize form, resistance, and especially separateness from mind.  The ones we call “mind” include those qualities that are more elusive, more personal, harder to share. Both are real, neither is superior in some way.  There are as well qualities of time, space, number, causality, value, and so on, that are hard to place in either category.

I do think that mental qualities came into existence later in the course of the universe’s history than material qualities. I believe they emerged from the special organizations of matter we call "life" - and especially "brain". But saying that doesn’t dismiss the reality of mental qualities, anymore than water is less watery for being made of hydrogen and oxygen.

The senses

It is a mistake, of course, to view consciousness as a thing inhabiting a place. Consciousness is a process, a verb, if you like, and an active and transitive one at that.  It is better to say something like “I ‘touch’ the world,” rather than “the world is in my consciousness.”  So let us take touch as the archetypal sense, and take shape as the archetypal quality. Then let us define form as a set of structural relationships extended over time and space - i.e. a Gestalt

Feeling (and seeing) shapes is the most “primary” (in Galileo's sense) of experiences. Curvature, angularity, circularity, rectilinearly....  Why do we have fewer epistemological problems with these than with other qualities?  Because they can be measured, recorded, and reconstructed...  and then experienced by someone else. The Gestalt or form is maintained, even if the form has to be “deconstructed” and “reconstructed.”  Forms are communicable. I would like to suggest that "secondary" qualities, even flavors and colors, can be understood in the same fashion - they are just less communicable.

Look at taste and smell:  These primitive senses allow us to experience the shapes of certain molecules. Could we say that sweet is round?  Bitter jagged?  Are pungent odors hairy?  Florals soft?  These are just similes, but they suggest a very useful way of conceiving of flavors and scents.

Or hearing:  Hair cells “touch” the physical vibrations conducted through air, bone, membranes, and fluids, vibrations which maintain their forms through all these changes.  Rhythm is very "primary" - a form over time.  Is a high C really that different from a rhythm?  Is a C major chord?  I recall as a kid making rulers vibrate on the edge of my school desk:  I liked hearing the rhythmical tapping of wood on wood and the "overtones" at various pitches!  We only need to remember that forms can be temporal as well as spatial to admit hearing into the class of primary senses.

And colors:  The cones in our retinas “touch” the light waves.  Try some "synesthetic" analogies on for size:  The sound of blue as electromagnetic vibrations; The taste of blue, the light waves experienced like the shapes of molecules are experienced in taste and smell; Or the shape of blue in analogy to the shapes of things we touch -- blue's "roundness" or "angularity"....

Again, it is the communicability of shapes that leads us to view them as somehow more "primary" than tastes, scents, sounds, and colors.  And, although some of these qualities remain difficult to communicate, we can indeed communicate a high C or a C major chord (deconstructing and reconstructing the Gestalts) quite easily, with our voices or our instruments.  The difficulty is a practical one, not a philosophical one.

Desire

As long as we are alive, we have needs. It is a part of our nature as human beings that we desire to survive, even when some of us sometimes choose not to. We don't just want to survive in a physical sense, either: We want to survive in terms of our identity, our self. This desire makes our experiences of the world meaningful. Without it, the qualities of the world merely pass through us, like information through a computer.

So, consciousness requires that we be needy, and being needy requires that we have a sense of self. One aspect of self is the simple awareness of our body. When I look out at the world, I also see my body stretching out under my nose. I can look at my feet and my hands and, with a mirror, my entire physical being. But another aspect of self - perhaps even more important - is the accumulated layers of past experiences that I have piled up inside my mind - my memories, my habits, my upbringing, my culture, my unique experiences. These things color my experience as much as the color of my glasses.

Another aspect of consciousness is that we are moving in time, that is, we perceive the direction in time that the events of the world flows. There is a sense that each moment leads to a future moment, which is in part actually present in each moment. The past, especially the immediate past of seconds or minutes before, is also somewhat present. The now has a certain thickness to it; it is never truly only the present moment, but rather a minute or two thick.

We take advantage of this by using our past experiences - even the events of the past moment - to anticipate possible futures - especially the events of the next moment. As we listen to someone speak, for example, we use the previous sentence and our experiences with language to anticipate the next one. We even use each word and sound to anticipate the next word or sound. If someone changes the subject suddenly, or uses the wrong word or mispronounces it, we are surprised, at least for a moment, until we manage to reorient our anticipations through action or learning.

Being able to anticipate means we can also anticipate threats to our survival or to our selves more generally, which in turn affects the actions we take in regard to those threats. We respond to some threats automatically, in ways that were laid down by evolution over millions of years. We have a variety of instincts that function this way.

We also come to realize that it serves us well to seek not only our own immediate survival, but to learn ways to make survival easier in the future. We want to improve ourselves. This is what young animals and humans do when they play: They are trying things out - in relative safety - that may be handy in the future. This desire to better ourselves is commonly called actualization.

Feelings

As a desiring being, I cannot be indifferent to the world. I relate to it passionately. Interactions which prevent my actualization I experience negatively, as pain and distress. Those which promote my actualization I experience positively, as pleasure and delight. The intensity of the feeling is the measure of how relevant or meaningful the interaction is for me.

My understanding of the world and myself is continually tested through my anticipations and actions.  When my understanding is inadequate, I feel distress, and I attempt to repair the inadequacy through further anticipation and action.  As these responses return me to adequate understanding, I feel delight.

Physical pain and pleasure are cyclical breakdowns and restorations of integrity that mimic distress and delight. They do not in themselves improve understanding, but they can and do reinforce the impact of otherwise distressful or delightful events. Pain and pleasure are forms of distress and delight developed through evolution rather than through learning.

Ironically, pain and distress are what we feel when our neediness is most evident and our awareness brightest. Pleasure and delight are what we feel as we move towards unconsciousness!  When there are no problems or problems-being-solved, there is no emotion. Only in unconsciousness is the differentiation of self and world obliterated and we are, for a while, truly at peace. But then, we aren’t able to enjoy it!  When there is no emotion, there is no consciousness.

Our capacity for anticipation permits certain emotions that are somewhat detached from the immediate situation.  Anxiety, for example, is the distressful anticipation of distress.  We also experience the delightful anticipation of delight, which we could call hope or eagerness, depending on the details.  Anger is distress combined with the expectation that the distress may be relieved by action.  Sadness is distress that acknowledges the need for continued efforts at improving myself.  And so on.

Perspectives

A conscious entity can only be conscious of some small portion of total reality. It is limited by its position in space, by the variety of its sense organs, by the sensitivity of those organs, by its access to its own processes, and more besides. In other words, each person has his or her own perspective on and understanding of the world. 

One consequence of this perspectivity is that the contrast between objectivity and subjectivity is no longer terribly meaningful: All you can ever have is a perspective, and although some perspectives are no doubt better than others - I prefer to be knowledgeable rather than ignorant, and sane rather than insane, for example - none qualifies as the "ultimate" perspective.

If you want to understand the entirety of reality, you will need to add all possible perspectives together. This is, of course, impossible, so we can only do our best to understand reality. And in order to move towards understanding, we must have a great respect for the variety of perspectives we come across, because each can contribute to our understanding of the whole.

What is meaningful for you may not be meaningful for me. Yet both of our perspectives refer to the same reality.  We are therefore ultimately capable of understanding each other.