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What is Consciousness?


Permalink 10:52:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1667 words   English (US)
Categories: The Mind

What is Consciousness?

In saying “Know thyself”, Socrates famously asserted the paramount importance of self knowledge. This may be one of the oldest and best known quotes in the history of philosophy, but a brief survey of contemporary philosophy seems to show that there is much confusion and uncertainty regarding the nature of the self. It is natural for people to ask questions such as “What am I?”, “What is the nature of my conscious experience?” and “What is my relationship to the rest of existence?” It is unfortunately far more common for people to ask questions such as these than it is for them to receive anything close to satisfactory answers.

Only conscious beings can seek to understand themselves, and thus an understanding of the nature of consciousness is essential to self knowledge. There are many different ideas of what consciousness is and how it relates to the material world. Anyone reading this is probably quite certain that they are conscious right now, but will probably have to admit that consciousness is a quite mysterious concept.

The word “consciousness” is used in a variety of ways and has many different meanings so it will be necessary to analyze the different understandings of this word. David Chalmers has provided an analysis of these different meanings:

For example, one sometimes says that a mental state is conscious when it is verbally reportable, or when it is internally accessible. Sometimes a system is said to be conscious of some information when it has the ability to react on the basis of that information, or, more strongly, when it attends to that information, or when it can integrate that information and exploit it in the sophisticated control of behaviour. We sometimes say that an action is conscious precisely when it is deliberate. Often, we say that an organism is conscious as another way of saying that it is awake. There is no real issue whether these phenomena can be explained scientifically. 1

Each of the different understandings of consciousness Chalmers mentioned deserves a more detailed analysis.

Perceptual Consciousness: Ability to Respond

A being whose mental states are, in Chalmers words, “verbally reportable or internally accessible” probably has this quality, which is a very basic form of conscious awareness. A being has this quality if it can perceive stimuli and respond vocally in a way that shows some degree of acknowledgment of the stimuli. Also, the ability to respond to stimuli with some form of bodily gestures is a related quality that Chalmers does not mention, which is a being's ability to respond with certain movements when stimulated in one of these ways. For example, if a being is touched somehow or hears something or is shown something and it is able to speak or gesture a sign that refers to this type of stimuli, then it has this quality.

Conscious Reasoning: Ability to Attend to, Integrate, and Exploit Information

This is a more complex form of conscious awareness in that it is similar to the ability to respond, but it is more specific in that a being only has this quality if it has some reasoning capacity to the point where it is able to understand the meaning of certain stimuli and demonstrate this though its reaction. For example, if a being is shown some words and is able to demonstrate understanding of what the sentence means, then it has this quality. On the other hand, if it can only speak the words but does not understand them, then it only has merely demonstrated perceptual consciousness.

Conscious Wakefulness versus Minimal Consciousness

The state of being awake is similar to perceptual consciousness. When a creature is asleep, it temporarily loses its perceptual consciousness but this does not mean that it loses all sense of what it means to be “conscious”. Although it is colloquially common for people to say that someone is “conscious” if they are awake and “unconscious” if they are asleep or otherwise incapacitated and generally unaware of their surroundings, this use is misleading. Of course, humans and most animals can be awake or asleep, and if they are asleep then they are less consciously aware of things, but even when asleep such beings still have a minimal level of conscious awareness. Humans and animals only completely lose all forms of conscious awareness when they die or perhaps in some cases if an individual suffers severe brain damage which results in a persistive vegetative state.

Introspective Consciousness: Heightened External Awareness and Self-Awareness

This is the most complex form of conscious awareness and it is easiest to explain by comparing it to more simple forms of conscious awareness. There are times when a person might appear to be fully awake, but their degree of consciousness is lower than it can be and the state of consciousness that they are in only allows them to perform routine tasks. It is not difficult, though, for someone in such a state to heighten their external awareness and self-awareness and then to be in a state that can be called heightened consciousness or introspective consciousness. This can happen when one is not actively paying attention to what they are doing or to what is going on around them for long periods of time but then suddenly “come to”, which results in them being in a higher state of consciousness where they are actively paying attention to their behavior and their surroundings. For example, probably most of us have driven for long distances, perhaps for several hours, without focusing attentively on the road but instead thinking about other things and letting our minds wander. If suddenly something happens that requires one to focus more attentively, such as an oncoming road hazard, then the brain quickly changes into a state in which it becomes more aware of what one is doing and what is going on externally. This state often comes with some degree of introspective and reflective capacity.

D. M. Armstrong has theorized that this form of consciousness becomes possible with an increase of organized communication amongst the different specialized areas of the brain. Armstrong believes that both heightened external awareness and introspection are correlated because they both become possible through the “integration of the [mental] states and activities, making them work together in the complex and sophisticated ways necessary to achieve complex and sophisticated ends” 2.

Phenomenal Consciousness: The First Person Experience of Consciousness

Each of the aforementioned brain states and processes are very complex and scientists have spent countless hours trying to form even a basic understanding of how these work inside the brain. Despite the apparent difficulty in understanding these phenomena, Chalmers calls the study of any of these as “the easy problem of consciousness” because they can all be studied scientifically. Although the brain is extremely complex, advancements in neurobiology and psychology have taken away a lot of the mysticism that previously surrounded the functioning of conscious beings. Scientific studies have made progress in understanding the brain processes associated with these forms of consciousness, including those that allow people to become consciously aware of their surroundings and those that allow people to deliberate over possible actions before making a conscious decision. Modern science is working towards what might eventually be a detailed and reliable understanding of how conscious awareness works, partially through advanced brain scans, partially through computer simulations, and also with the help of several other methods of study.

While modern science offers ways for us to better understand the different forms of conscious awareness, Chalmers argues that there is another sense of the word “consciousness” that is altogether distinct from those mentioned above: what it is like to be something, or the first person experience of consciousness. Chalmers calls this phenomenal consciousness and the study of this is what Chalmers calls “the hard problem of consciousness.” The argument is that even if one were to fully understand all forms of conscious awareness from a neurobiological standpoint, then there is still more that one knows from actually experiencing consciousness firsthand. Those who agree with this line of thinking have put forth arguments that one can only understand the redness of the color red or the sound of a trumpet or the feeling of a soft pillow through the firsthand experience of consciousness. Each of these supposedly falls under the category of the qualitative aspect of conscious experience, which is often called qualia.

According to the theory of phenomenal consciousness, there are qualia associated with every kind of experience, such as color, pain, sweet taste, passion, etc. The fact that conscious awareness appears to be understandable through modern science is what makes it “the easy problem”, and the fact that phenomenal consciousness seems, in principle, to be completely outside the realm of science is what makes it “the hard problem”. Each of the forms of conscious awareness listed above are actually very complex and thus conscious awareness is a difficult subject to approach. In light of this, the problems associated with this can hardly be called “easy”, but the fact that it is at least possible to study conscious awareness scientifically makes these problems seem easy compared to those associated with phenomenal consciousness.

The reason phenomenal consciousness cannot conceivably be studied scientifically is because it involves the study of things that can only be known subjectively but cannot be known objectively. One can only understand their own conscious experience firsthand and it will never be possible to experience someone else's consciousness. Because of this, there can never be a way of approaching phenomenal consciousness in a way that meets the definition of objectivity. It is, however, possible for different people to come to a shared understanding of the nature of phenomenal consciousness by introspecting and discussing their findings amongst each other, thus creating intersubjectivity on this topic. The best way to study matters that can be known intersubjectively but not objectively is the modern phenomenological method or MPhM, which was explained in a prior post.

1 John Heil, Philosophy of Mind – A Guide and Anthology. p. 618

2 ||. p. 614


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