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Written by Dr. Nash Popovic

What awareness is not

As in the previous case, to clarify what awareness is, we first have to make a distinction between awareness and other phenomena that are easily confused with it, such as consciousness.

Awareness is different from mental processes such as thoughts, images, sensations, emotional reactions, etc. The Ancient Greeks had separate terms for awareness (psyche) and mental activity (pneuma), but this difference is obscured nowadays. Some philosophers and neuroscientists (e.g. G. E. Moore, Baars) have recognised, though, that they cannot be treated as the same thing. Grossman, for example, writes: ‘We can introspectively discriminate between the contents of consciousness and the quality of being conscious’ (in Bogen, 1998, p.237). Libet makes the same point:

The content of an awareness can be anything. But being aware is a unique phenomenon in itself, independent of the nature of the particular content in awareness (2004, p.188).

To preserve this distinction, the term consciousness is used throughout the text for all the mind activities (of which some comprise the materials of awareness). Awareness, on the other hand, does not refer to any specific mental processes, but to that which enables cognising them. An analogy can be made with a movie projection: everything that is on the screen can be considered consciousness, while awareness would be the equivalent of the projector light that is not a part of the movie, but enables whatever is on the screen to be visible. Another parallel can be made with a torch that casts light on various objects. If what is lit by the torch comprises consciousness, awareness is the light from the torch (and like a torch, it cannot illuminate all the objects at the same time).

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