The « strange loop » of consciousness


If you have fol­lo­wed the pre­vious epi­sodes (I speak of My sto­ry and the articles on the page Consciousness, thoughts and emo­tions), you have arri­ved at a first syn­the­sis of my search for a defi­ni­tion of conscious­ness. At this stage, pre­sen­ting the thought of the phi­lo­so­pher Michel Bitbol is rich in mea­ning. On the one hand, he addresses this ques­tion him­self, in par­ti­cu­lar in his book La conscience a‑t-elle une ori­gine ? (Does conscious­ness have an ori­gin?) [1]On the other hand, the trai­ning he recei­ved in medi­cine and phy­sics [2] allows him to have a scien­ti­fic view on the sub­ject. I would add that, through phi­lo­so­phy, medi­cine and phy­sics, it covers pre­ci­se­ly the fields from which I explore the ques­tion myself.


The inner experience

According to him, eve­ry­thing starts from expe­rience : « We begin our inves­ti­ga­tion about the mate­rial bodies, about the brain, about eve­ry­thing, from expe­rience, the inner expe­rience. (…) This is the most basic fact » [3]. And, in fact, my expe­rience is both the star­ting point and the rea­son of being of this blog.

Michel Bitbol reminds us that the expe­rience never stops, it is always present. Whatever we are expe­rien­cing, we can always connect with the expe­rience that is taking place. However, he does state that :


« Experience is not an object. The object is an enti­ty that is sup­po­sed to exist beyond situa­tions, sub­jec­tive states and being-present. On the contra­ry, conscious expe­rience is situa­ted, it is what it feels like to be at this moment. » [4]


For him, it is even « pure expe­rience [which] must be the true mea­ning of conscious­ness » [5]. He quotes Kitaro Nishida, a Japanese phi­lo­so­pher who sought to link Western phi­lo­so­phy and Eastern spi­ri­tua­li­ty, i.e. to esta­blish a link bet­ween phe­no­me­no­lo­gy [6] and Zen prac­tice. He pro­po­sed « not to consi­der that know­ledge will seek its object, but [to] put down any quest for an object in order to be only in pure expe­rience, pre­sence, things as they appear. » [7]



I’ll make one lit­tle cla­ri­fi­ca­tion here. I’m not going to quibble about the term « Presence », because it seems to me that in the end we’re tal­king about the same thing. The use of words is not easy to mani­pu­late this kind of sub­ject. Michel Bitbol also points out that his speech is not the lan­guage of desi­gna­tion, but the lan­guage of sug­ges­tion. That is, it is sim­ply trying to get some­thing reco­gni­zed – in this case pure expe­rience – rather than making it an object by defi­ning it. I reco­gnize this expe­rience for having lived it, but given my use of the word « Presence », I can­not asso­ciate it with « pure expe­rience ». Indeed, for me pre­sence is a state beyond experience.

When it mani­fests itself, then we can no lon­ger for­mu­late any­thing. Except to go back into the expe­rience and try to talk about this state. Removing our­selves from the pre­sence does not mean that we are no lon­ger connec­ted to it. In fact, we can’t not be connec­ted to it. We can only be uncons­cious of our rela­tion­ship as long as we have not swit­ched into pre­sence and reco­gni­zed this state consciously.


The mystery of consciousness



« Consciousness can­not be shown, it shows itself » [8] says Michel Bitbol. So, can we define it ? The word « defi­ni­tion » is not appro­priate, accor­ding to him, because deter­mi­ning what conscious­ness is implies deter­mi­ning what it is not. But we can­not exclude any­thing from conscious­ness because eve­ry­thing is conscious­ness. All states of conscious­ness are part of conscious­ness and they are as real as each other.


« Consciousness is mys­te­rious, and its mys­te­ry stems from its abso­lute proxi­mi­ty. » [9]           


The sub­ject can never detach him­self from his ques­tio­ning about conscious­ness, because he is enti­re­ly part of that ques­tio­ning. A ques­tio­ning that is only made pos­sible by conscious­ness. Thus, conscious expe­rience creates a ver­ti­gi­nous­ly self-referential confi­gu­ra­tion. But to clear­ly per­ceive this requires a new state of conscious­ness, consi­de­ra­bly enlar­ged com­pa­red to the one we have most often.

In this regard, the phi­lo­so­pher men­tions a socio­lo­gi­cal fact that I can only attest to : the vast majo­ri­ty of people who have expe­rien­ced alte­red states of conscious­ness no lon­ger believe in reduc­tio­nist expla­na­tions. In par­ti­cu­lar, the hypo­the­sis that conscious­ness is a by-product of brain func­tion [10]. However, this hypo­the­sis is put for­ward by neu­ros­cien­tists, for whom « conscious­ness is the power of syn­the­sis of par­tial and frag­men­ta­ry repre­sen­ta­tions for­med by various spe­cia­li­zed areas of the cor­tex. Consciousness is also about meta­cog­ni­tion, which is about being aware of know­ledge. » [11]


The experience of the knowing subject

But for Michel Bitbol, it is an objec­ti­fied defi­ni­tion of conscious­ness, from which it is easy to give an objec­ti­fied expla­na­tion of its func­tions, which are them­selves objec­ti­fied.  What does that mean ? This means that neu­ros­cien­tists connect objec­tive phe­no­me­na with each other but miss the point. They esta­blish cau­sal rela­tion­ships bet­ween visible, per­cep­tible – that is, objec­ti­fiable – phe­no­me­na, but at no time do they have access to the per­son’s experience.

My own expe­rience with the Glasgow scale illus­trates this dis­cre­pan­cy, as the objec­ti­vi­zed cri­te­ria on which it is based offer a consi­de­ra­bly res­tric­ted view of my expe­rience. Establishing these cri­te­ria also pre­sup­poses that we know what conscious­ness is and what it is not, and when it is sup­po­sed to mani­fest itself or not.

Why is the Glasgow scale none­the­less effec­tive ? Because it works by extrac­ting an inva­riant, some­thing stable that neu­ros­cien­tists agree on. From there :


« They build know­ledge that is equal­ly valid for eve­ryone and that can be impro­ved col­lec­ti­ve­ly. However, this approach is based on an exclu­sion, the exclu­sion of our­selves : we agree on cri­te­ria without taking into account the expe­rience of the kno­wing sub­ject. » [12]


All this leads us, accor­ding to him, to a situa­tion that is para­doxi­cal to say the least. On the one hand, our unders­tan­ding of conscious­ness is at an impasse. On the other hand, we have made a lot of tech­ni­cal pro­gress in pre­dic­ting the « return to conscious­ness » of people in comas. I would add that this pro­gress depends on the cor­re­la­tion we have esta­bli­shed, right­ly and wron­gly, bet­ween the func­tio­ning of the brain and consciousness.


For a neuroscience applicable to consciousness

Neural process and lived experience

neuronal-plasticityMichel Bitbol also men­tions the fact that we can sti­mu­late cer­tain parts of the brain, and obtain cer­tain expe­riences, cer­tain very spe­ci­fic contents of conscious­ness. However, he imme­dia­te­ly cla­ri­fies that « des­cri­bing a cer­tain neu­ral pro­cess is not living it, is not living the expe­rience that goes with it. (…) You can have any brain pro­cesses you want, yet you have abso­lu­te­ly no argu­ment in prin­ciple that they should be asso­cia­ted with lived expe­rience. » [13]

Thus, obser­ved cor­re­la­tion does not auto­ma­ti­cal­ly mean cau­sa­li­ty. Especially since there are seve­ral types of cau­sa­li­ty. A simple cau­sa­li­ty : events in the brain pro­duce conscious­ness. Or reverse cau­sa­li­ty : it is conscious events that cause brain events. Or a bidi­rec­tio­nal cau­sa­li­ty, i.e. the brain is the cause of conscious­ness and vice ver­sa : in other words, the brain and conscious­ness co-emerge depen­dent­ly [14].


Brain and consciousness : what are the links ?

This brings us back to one of the ques­tions that my expe­rience raises : per­haps that night, the change that took place in my conscious­ness made me come out of a cer­tain struc­ture of infor­ma­tion to immerse myself in a space beyond any form of struc­ture ? Unless it was the modi­fi­ca­tion of these struc­tures that cau­sed the change in conscious­ness ? Or as Eckhart Tolle would say :


« Any change in conscious­ness has an effect on the body, and any change in conscious­ness will recon­nect eve­ry­thing in the brain (…), but who comes first, the egg or the chi­cken ? Are we awa­ke­ning because our brain cells are muta­ting or are the cells muta­ting because we are awa­ke­ning ? I don’t know and I don’t need to know. Maybe both are true, who knows, maybe both pers­pec­tives mani­fest them­selves simul­ta­neous­ly. So the egg or the chi­cken that came first I don’t know, but I’m sure it hap­pe­ned. » [15]


The strange loop

This last pos­si­bi­li­ty, close to the Buddhist point of view, seems to show that there is in fact a mutual rela­tion­ship bet­ween brain and conscious­ness. Together, brain, conscious­ness, and the rela­tion­ship they have with each other belong to expe­rience. This forms what Michel Bitbol calls a « strange loop » [16]. His search for a neu­ros­cien­ti­fic approach to conscious­ness does not ignore this strange loop, and thus offers the pos­si­bi­li­ty of making neu­ros­cience appli­cable to it. But one that is nei­ther reduc­tio­nist nor materialistic.

It is based in par­ti­cu­lar on the work of the Chilean neu­ro­bio­lo­gist and phi­lo­so­pher Francisco Varela, who : « did not try to have an objec­tive science of sub­jec­ti­vi­ty. He wan­ted to have a science that culti­vates both the objec­tive and sub­jec­tive view­points, and to connect them. He didn’t want to grab one into the other, he wan­ted to connect both. » [17]

Do you want to know more about the links bet­ween sub­jec­ti­vi­ty and objec­ti­vi­ty ? You can conti­nue your explo­ra­tion by rea­ding the article Objectivity and sub­jec­ti­vi­ty : the uni­fied per­cep­tion.



Key points

  • Neuroscience connects objec­tive phe­no­me­na to each other but at no time does it have access to the per­son’s experience.

  • Conscious expe­rience creates a ver­ti­gi­nous­ly self-referential configuration.

  • Brain and conscious­ness co-emerge dependently.




Notes and references

[1] BITBOL Michel, La conscience a‑t-elle une ori­gine ? Des neu­ros­ciences à la pleine conscience : une nou­velle approche de l’esprit, Paris : Flammarion, 2014, free trans­la­tion
[2] See in par­ti­cu­lar the article Reality and quan­tum phy­sics
[3] BITBOL Michel. (January 20, 2013). La conscience a‑t-elle une base maté­rielle ? In : Fleurs du dhar­ma, Mind and Life XXVI : Esprit, cer­veau et matière, p.4, free trans­la­tion
[4] BITBOL Michel, La conscience a‑t-elle une ori­gine ?, op.cit., p.8, free trans­la­tion
[5] BITBOL Michel. (June 6, 2014). La conscience a‑t-elle une ori­gine ? In : France Culture : Les che­mins de la phi­lo­so­phie [pod­cast], free trans­la­tion
[6] Phenomenology is a phi­lo­so­phi­cal cur­rent that focuses on the stu­dy of phe­no­me­na, lived expe­rience and contents of conscious­ness.
[7] BITBOL Michel, La conscience a‑t-elle une ori­gine ? [pod­cast], op.cit., free trans­la­tion
[8] BITBOL Michel. (February 5, 2014). Plongée dans les abysses de la conscience avec Michel Bitbol (par­tie 2/2). In : Monde des grandes écoles et uni­ver­si­tés, free trans­la­tion
[9] BITBOL Michel. (March 12, 2014). Aux sources de la conscience. In : CNRS Le jour­nal [en ligne], free trans­la­tion
[10] The his­to­ry of the neu­ros­cien­tist Eben Alexander is remar­kable about that (article online soon).
[11] BITBOL Michel, La conscience a‑t-elle une ori­gine ? [pod­cast], op. cit., free trans­la­tion
[12] Ibid., free trans­la­tion
[13] BITBOL Michel, La conscience a‑t-elle une base maté­rielle ?, op.cit., p.2, free trans­la­tion
[14] For a bet­ter unders­tan­ding how phe­no­me­na appear depen­dent­ly, you can also consult the article Indeterminism and entan­gle­ment.
[15] TOLLE Eckhart. L’éveil modifie-t-il le cer­veau ? In : BlogBug
[16] BITBOL Michel, La conscience a‑t-elle une base maté­rielle ?, op.cit., p.5, free trans­la­tion
[17] Ibid., p.8, free translation



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