Consciousness and qualia are problems that are still unsolved by philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. My way of viewing consciousness and qualia is that consciousness is the process by which our brains organize the world into working models and qualia is the ‘stuff’ that consciousness uses to generate those models. For better or worse, both of these exist due to evolutionary forces. That means they’re fine tuned to a very specific sort of survival, not for any pure understanding of the world or ourselves. In order to understand the limitations of our own minds, we need to know the inner workings of how the world is organized in our minds on a fundamental level. That requires knowing the structure of our minds.
Immanuel Kant distinguished between the external world and our inner experience of the world through his concepts of noumenon and phenomenon. In order for humans to understand their world, they must generate inner models of the world. For one to fully grasp the world in its entirety, one would have to be the entire world. Thus, our inner models are approximations based off limited data. Phenomena are essentially ‘metaphors’ for noumena that our minds use to understand the world. The material by which these inner models are generated is not the material as the world exists in-itself – what the existentialist philosophers might call being-in-itself. The material of our models is qualia, which is the way in which we experience sense information.
The way in which humans experience sense information is a product of evolution. The experience of seeing blue as blue is arbitrary. It’s a way of distinguishing 480 nm wavelength light (blue) from, say, 540 nm wavelength light (green). It could have been the case that, in our evolutionary history, there was no need to distinguish those two wavelengths from each other, and therefore it would look the same to us. It was the case that there was no survival need for humans to be able to see 300 nm wavelength light (ultraviolet), which is why UV is invisible to us.
Even physics uses models, which are metaphors for how noumena (the real world) actually works. We do this because our study of the sciences forces us to enter realms evolution did nor prepare us for. This is how we can know that noumena – the objective world outside our own minds – actually exists (even if it’s only a simulation, it is still outside our own minds). We create models – metaphors and analogies – based on archetypes we evolved in order to understand the physical world – the noumena.
I think someone like Jordan Peterson conflates utility with truth. Because ‘480 nm wavelength light is experienced as blue’ is true because it supplied utility to our evolutionary ancestors doesn’t mean that belief in God conferring a survival advantage on our more recent ancestors means God is real. I think this is confusing the Jungian idea of archetypes-as-such with the particular expression of archetypal images. The former consists of general principles and the latter the application of those general principles. The archetypes-as-such are more fundamental. Particular expressions of archetypal images are metaphors for the archetypes-as-such, which are metaphors for the noumena generated by evolution.
I do think that Peterson is partially correct in his pragmatic epistemology. We can’t know the absolute truth, and our way of understanding truth is based on evolutionary utility. As is discussed in the above video, we humans have to use metaphors and analogies to make models that allow us to understand the world. The models are true because they’re useful – we can make accurate predictions with them. But that doesn’t necessary mean it’s how the world actually works. We humans can understand something like forces acting on an object or the principle of least action. But is that the ‘laws’ or general principles dictating how reality actually works? It may be, but there is no way for us to actually know. Does this mean, though, that it is the utility of these models that determines the truth, or that because it is the case that these models can make accurate predictions that they can be used to describe the truth? I would be more inclined to believe the latter.
This is all somewhat of a tangent, though. What exactly is consciousness doing when it generates our inner models of the world? Our models, as I said above, are necessarily inaccurate and incomplete. We don’t have access to all of the information and the models must be constructed with the limited ‘material’ (qualia) given to us by evolution. Thus, I contend, as others before me have (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Husserl, Jung, et al) that our consciousness is setup to apply a template to our qualia in the construction of our inner models of the world. These templates follow a hierarchy.
Below, I will sketch out what I think can be potential archetypes/categories, organized into a hierarchy.
Hierarchy of the Mind
These are my proposals for what Immanuel Kant might call the Categories of Understanding.
Self vs not-self: of primary importance to any consciousness is distinguishing between what is the self, the I in I think, therefore I am vs that which is external to I. It is I having an experience.
Mine vs not-mine: distinguishing that which is mine and not mine. This doesn’t just apply to external property, but more importantly to thoughts, past memories, and future plans/goals. This is the I think in I think, therefore I am. Those thoughts belong to me. Those memories are of things that happened to me. Even though I am a very different person now at age 34 than I was at age 4, there is some continuity because the memories I have from age 4 belong to me and not to you or anyone else.
General Archetypes/Categories of Understanding
These are those things that apply to all conscious humans.
Descriptive: these are categories we use to construct our inner models of the world out of sense information.
Space and Distance: reality is organized spatially. No two things occupy the same space and they are all a particular distance from each other at any given time.
Time and Persistence: reality is organized in a particular way at a particular time. Although something may move or be altered, the components persist. Objects remain in existence even while we are not currently sensing them and an object is the same object even after an interval of time in which we were not sensing it (object permanence).
Cause and Effect vs Independent Occurrence: event A causes event B. Event A needs to occur prior to event B and there must be some locality to both events or some way that the two events can ‘communicate’ with one another. It may also be that there is event A and event B that are completely unrelated to one another. I awoke at 6:15 a.m. today and its 50 degrees outside – there is no cause-effect relationship between the two events.
Static vs Dynamic: an object or state of affairs is either remaining constant or moving. The simplest occurrence would be a moving object – it is dynamic if its position changes from one moment to the next. A still object is static.
Discrete vs Continuous: objects are either made of discrete components or are continuous. Obviously, due to science we now know that all objects of experience are made of discrete components, but our inner models of the world still assume some continuity. It also matters at which level we think about objects. A house may be made of bricks, wherein each brick is discrete from the other bricks, but continuous in itself; if we then consider the brick, we could identify the discrete ingredients it is made out of and consider each ingredient a continuous. This just shows that our conception of objects at whatever level they are being considered is understood as either discrete or continuous. Events can be discrete or continuous as well.
Singular vs Multiple: an object or event is either a single instance or multiple instances. Just like with discrete vs continuous, the application of singularity or multiplicity can change depending on which level an object or event is being considered.
Lesser vs Greater: this can apply to size, intensity, speed, etc. An object can be bigger or smaller. The intensity of a sound or color can be greater or lesser. The speed of a moving object can be faster or slower. And so on.
Prescriptive: these are categories we apply to the components of our inner models of the world.
Essence/Haecceity/Quiddity: this is our sense that objects maintain a sense of thisness. This is more than just object permanence. Our subjectivity bestows something special on an object – it bestows a property that exists only in our own mind. A house maintains the essence of the house, even if all of its component parts were changed out. An object maintains its thisness – that it is a particular thing – even if we removed all of the properties we use to define what it is. Adding stripes to a lion doesn’t make it a tiger, even if we define a tiger as a large, striped cat. This may be why people have issues with transgenderism – a person born male remains male even if they change all of their properties to fit our definition of what a female is, and vice versa. The transgender individual still has an XY chromosome pair, with the Y chromosome taking on some essence of maleness, even if what it really does is function to generate the properties of male – if those properties are negated or superseded by external interventions, that function ceases. But in our human minds, we bestow upon it an essence that doesn’t exist in reality.
Agency vs Inanimate: humans distinguish things by whether they have agency or not. We treat animals and other humans different than we do trees because, even though both are categories of living things, animals have agency and trees do not (that we’re aware of, anyway). However, humans often use agency as a way of understanding things, of making our models. We say that gravity makes things want to fall to the ground, or that electromagnetism makes electrons want to move toward protons. It may also be why so many believe in some sort of creator or intelligent designer, or why people believe in fate or destiny or that everything happens for a reason – our inner models of the world are often understood through agency. This likely came about through evolution because attributing things to an agency was safer than attributing things to agentless forces. The person who thinks any rustling in the bushes is a predator, even though they’re wrong 9/10 times, will survive better (in those 1/10 times they’re right) than the person who always attributes the rustling to the wind. Thus, there is an evolutionary advantage to seeing agency behind everything. This would make religion and superstition what Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin called spandrels.
Valuable/Useful vs Worthless/Irrelevant: this can apply to both external objects and to objects of thought. A tool might be useful, a trinket might have sentimental value, a thought might have value for achieving some goal or desired state of mind. It’s also a way of discerning salience in a given situation – in one situation, I might bestow more salience on my coffee cup than on my bed, and in other situations the reverse may be true. Once again, this is a way for our minds to understand reality – it is our subjectivity bestowing the property of value or utility on an object, not something intrinsic to the object itself.
Dangerous/Unpleasant vs Safe/Pleasant: this is fairly self-explanatory. Humans categorize objects, events, thoughts, and ideas on a spectrum with two axes: dangerous-safe and unpleasant-pleasant.
Incomplete vs Complete: just like with discrete vs continuous, the incomplete vs complete template can be applied at different levels. We might see our house as complete, but that won’t stop us from changing it or adding new things. The incompleteness of something is only in our minds, not in the object itself.
Relation vs Unrelated: objects or events can be related based on their similarity and their ability to interact to change or enhance them. We say that two different McDonald’s stores are related in that they are both McDonald’s. We say McDonald’s is related to Burger King in that they are both fast food burger joints. We say that McDonald’s is related to the Empire State Building in that they are both structures with walls and ceilings. We say a McDonald’s store is related to the Moon in that both are objects that take up space. But we can also categorize them based on their unrelatedness. McDonald’s and Burger King are unrelated in that they are different businesses with their own particular menus. And so on with my other examples. Relation can also be in how things interact – vehicles and fuel are related in that fuel is needed for a vehicle to function. Vehicles and seat belts are related in that seat belts make vehicles safer.
Contingent Particular Archetypes/Categories of Understanding
These are those things that are templates of understanding that are different for every particular individual.
The Personality/Temperament: the personality/temperament is the result of our biology and upbringing. We don’t control it, but it determines how the fundamental archetypes/categories are used in the construction of our inner model of the world. An introvert may see large crowds as more unpleasant than an extrovert, and as a result, their inner models of the world will be different.
The Identity: the identity is that sense of ourselves that we are in control of, that we have constructed ourselves. The identity also determines how the fundamental archetypes/categories are used in the construction of our inner model of the world. Someone who identifies as a gearhead might look at a car as incomplete (full of potential), where someone like me (who is not a gearhead) might see the same car as complete. The gearhead might then see a computer as complete while a self-identified computer nerd sees it as incomplete.
Aesthetic Competence: this has to do with ones depth of immersion in something. A person who loves classical music and has immersed themselves in it for decades might hear a song and find it sublime where someone hearing it for the first time couldn’t distinguish it from any other song by that composer. But the second person, being a lifelong metalhead, could distinguish two death metal songs while the classical music lover hears only noise. Like personality/temperament and identity, this alters one’s inner model of reality.