In reflecting on the super and perennial question of the nature of consciousness, it helps me to bring this lofty topic down to earth in our close kinship with other animals with a nervous system, such as the birds and squirrels I see out the window of my home office. They are clearly seeing and hearing, feeling pain and pleasure. They are aware of their surroundings, and thus conscious in that sense. The fact that their experiences are simpler than ours does not mean they do not exist. So we can ask of them, what is the basis – the causes and conditions – for their experiences? (By “consciousness” I mean simply the combination of experiences and the field of awareness in which they occur.)
Experiences are intangible. We cannot touch or weigh or box up an experience of the color red. But they still exist. Since they are intangible, they do not have a location per se (a huge and useful point). But their causes and conditions do.
Within the ordinary universe – the “natural frame” – there are many causes and conditions that enable, foster, and shape the experiences of a squirrel . . . or a human typing now on a keyboard. Everything that keeps the body going (food, air, water, etc.) is a factor, plus the environment, culture, society, and all the way back to the Big Bang. Causes and conditions located all over the place.
Within the body, what is happening in various systems such as musculoskeletal tissue certainly affects the experiences a squirrel or person is having. In particular, what is happening in the nervous system, especially its headquarters the brain, strongly influences our experiences – and thus our consciousness.
In fact, the immediate physical basis of experiences such as hearing, seeing, remembering, imagining, thinking, sensing, feeling, wanting, suffering, and awakening is the nervous system. It is a necessary condition for experiences such as these. Without the nervous system, there would be no natural experiences.
As long as it is intact and metabolically active, the brain is the necessary and sufficient basis for experiences.
Taking all this into account, in my view, while experiences and consciousness do not have a location, their causes do. We can assess the influence of different kinds of causes in various ways. Science is certainly not currently able to measure quantitatively and “weight” the influence of various causes on experience. Still, it seems obvious that the primary location of the causes of the consciousness of a squirrel is its brain. And the same is true for every human.
This does not mean ignoring other causes and conditions located elsewhere. It is not either-or, it’s yes-and. And it does not mean conflating the physical location of the brain with metaphors like “heady,” “Spock-like,” “in your head,” “top-down,” etc. The primary location of the causes and conditions of sensations in the big toe as well as experiences of tender lovingness . . . is the brain. So if we care about tender lovingness and other important experiences, well, it’s useful to learn about the brain!