Is it possible for the constituent parts of a conscious being to be conscious themselves? Can I infer from the fact that I am conscious that the cells which make up my body are not conscious?

It's possible that the constituents of a conscious being might be conscious, though there's no strong reason to think that it's true. Some philosophers have speculated that there are primitive little events or occasions of experience that, when arranged properly, make up minds like ours, though this isn't a popular view. Perhaps a little less odd is the possibility that each hemisphere of your brain contains a separate stream of consciousness. The philosopher Derek Parfit (among others) has had some interesting things to say about this based on evidence from cases of people whose corpus callosum (the bundle of nerves connecting the two hemispheres of the brain) has been cut. Whether this would be a case of one conscious being with parts that are also conscious is harder to say.

In any case, from the fact that you are conscious, nothing follows one way or the other about whether your cells are. To infer that they must be would be to commit the fallacy of division. To infer that they must not be would also be a fallacy, though one without a name. It would be a bit like inferring from the fact that the Supreme Court has a lot of power that none of its members do.

My little toe is conscious, and it is a part of me, perhaps even a "constituent" part. I put in the scare quotes because I am wondering whether "constituent" means "essential"; if it does my big toe is not a constituent part of me. But if "A is a constituent of B" means "A is part of B", then my big toe is a constituent part of me, but the phrase "constituent part" is a tautology - it says that same thing twice. Are there parts of me which are not constituent parts, but some other kind?

You can imagine after surgery a doctor asking, "Is your little toe conscious?", and the answer might be "Yes", and working through to the big toe; the answer then might be, "No".

It is not at all obvious why we should feel the Cartesian tug to say that it is I, not my big toe, that is conscious, except for dubious epistemological reasons such as that we can imagine the consciousness without the toe. The same seems to be true of my psychological parts in Descartes' sense in the Meditations. My thinking might be highly conscious, my feelings almost or completely unconscious, perhaps to my detriment, or the other way round. Is there any reason beyond a fondness for the unity of panpsychism (everything is more or less conscious) to suppose that individual cells might be? You might suppose that my armchair is conscious, but there is no special reason to think so, whereas there is for my cat. Cells don't seem to have the psychological activity usually associated with consciousness.

Naturally my little toe is not a person (or a "self") but why should that prevent it from being conscious? Wasn't that Descartes' mistake?

Read another response by Allen Stairs, Jonathan Westphal
Read another response about Consciousness