Dissertation, Macquarie University (2019)
Is attention both necessary and sufficient for consciousness? Call this central question of this treatise, “Q.” We commonly have the experience of consciously paying attention to something, but is it possible to be conscious of something you are not attending to, or to attend to something of which you are not conscious? Where might we find examples of these?
This treatise is a quest to find an answer to Q in two parts. Part I reviews the foundations upon which the discourse on Q is built. Different inputs to Q produce different answers. After consideration of the many ways “attention” and “consciousness” have been defined, I settle upon phenomenal consciousness and Executive Attention (defined as a suite of strategies for structuring cognition for further processing implemented by the executive of working memory) as the most interesting inputs to Q, and the ones on which Part II focuses.
Attention without consciousness seems relatively easy to establish empirically, but consciousness without attention is much harder. The putative candidates all seem to have major problems, but I build a strong abductive case for the hitherto ignored case of foveal phenomenal overflow. We consciously see far more detail in our foveal fields than we can Executively Attend, although there is a serious obstacle to our ever confirming that empirically—identifying conscious content relies on Executive Attentional report. Triangulating the capacity limitations of attention, consciousness, and working memory strengthens this case for consciousness without attention, and suggests that cognition must work something like my “Witches’ Hat Model,” on which content can become conscious outside of Executive Attention or working memory. I conclude with some reflections on the implications of my arguments for the discourse on Q, and for other discourses such as the ontologies of attention and consciousness, theories of consciousness, some other cognitive concepts, and ethical considerations in humans, animals, and machines.
A conclusive answer to Q continues to elude us. It may perhaps be an ultimately insoluble conundrum. But it is the very essence of humanity to seek an answer, and in so doing, to improve our understanding of our own nature:
“The proper study of mankind is man.”1