Art and the Conscious Mind: What is Consciousness?

What is the biological basis of consciousness?


Anthony Van Dyck, Cupid and Psyche, 1640

When we look at the painting, we typically only pay attention to the two figures, analysing their expressions and gestures to create meaning. The more we look at a painting, the more we notice. Of course, we were aware that there are trees in the background but they didn’t come into consciousness until they were mentioned, we analysed and compared them and now we can’t unsee them.

…Consiousnes is at all times primarily a selecting agency. (James 1890, P. 139)

Susan Blackmore

There is no such thing as consciousness at all, we believe we do under an illusion. ‘The stream of consciousness does not exist’

  • The view that everything is conscious (Panpsychism)
  • There isn’t really any such thing as consciousness at all (Eliminativism)
  • Is is so mysterious a phenomenon we will never be in a position to explain it (Mysterianism)
  • It is something distinct from physical processes (Dualism)
  • It is entirely derived from physical matter (Materialism/Physicalism)

Visual Consciousness

Photons > Lens > Retina > Visual Pathways > Visual Cortex >

Nothing we see is actually there.

… the objects at hand in space seem to us clothed with the qualities of our sensations. (Helmholtz 1876)

In general, his case supports the view that ‘perceptual’ and ‘recognition’ processes are separable, because his stored knowledge required for recognition is in tact.

Visual Indeterminacy

We see what we expect to see.

Subjects perceived recognisable objects in 24% of the RP paintings (33% in follow-up furl study)

People frequently see objects where there are none.

Joseph Wright of Derby's An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768

Joseph Wright of Derby, An experiment on a bird in the air pump, 1768

He painted the jar to provoke people to speculate what’s in it.

What is an object? 
Do objects exist? 
Do objects have boundaries? …If so, where are they?

When we perceive an object we’re setting a distinction between the thing and everything else around it.

Can you imagine nothing?

The observer separates themselves from the world so bring the world and themselves into existence.

Quantum Physics

Quantum physics is the most accurate, precise and successful scientific theory ever developed.

The Newtonian Universe: The universe is a clockwork machine, if we find out what each ‘ball’ does and the rules to how they work, we’ll understand the whole universe and predict anything.

Hydrogen wave function: A hydrogen atom could look like several different states but also can only be one state…

Schroedinger’s Cat: Nothing in quantum physics can prove that the cat is alive, therefore, the cat is both alive and dead.

Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy Principle: If we measure the direction, we can’t measure the speed. The particles are so imaginarily small, the only way you can measure it is by colliding two particles to see what they do but then you are changing their directions so there is a level of uncertainty.

Consciousness brings the world into being for us. 


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A nocturnal twenty-something artist

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