This is the most fundamental question of our era, because everything else rests on the answer to it. You can’t discuss free will, for example, if you can’t basically establish what consciousness is and isn’t. Centuries past the focus was on whether God exists or not, but now we are questioning our own nature. Are we essentially mechanical things or immaterial awarenesses? There are major arguments on both sides from scientific, philosophical, and religious or spiritual perspectives, but it seems people get lost in the rhetoric of their own disciplines, and end up being too reductionist, or else overly complex and convoluted. More obvious and reasonable arguments might be had from an outside perspective. The following is my humble, and amateur, if ambitious attempt to address the question.
We all already know what consciousness is, so it should be so obvious that nobody need bother thinking about it. Because it’s completely inescapable, however, it gets taken for granted and goes unnoticed, even though it’s the ground of our being, and the difference between existence and nothingness. We tend to think of consciousness as a thing that exists within the broader spectrum of the world we live in, but in reality consciousness IS the world we live in.
Consciousness is what separates you from a computer, a robot, a zombie, or the Terminator. We have no difficulty imagining the science fiction scenario of someone being a brain in a jar, because we experience our consciousness as not the same thing as our body. The experiment could be impossible, as consciousness MAY be inextricable from a physical brain lodged in a nurturing body, but it’s still easy to imagine because our immediate experience is that consciousness is qualitatively different from matter. How can a subjective experience of self be an objective object outside of self?
Imagine a mad scientist transplanted your brain into the body of a fifty year old woman named Olga, and her brain into your body. Your family finds out you’ve been abducted by thugs and taken to the scientist’s laboratory, the scientist is killed, and along with him goes his brilliant procedure for doing brain transplants. Now you can go home with your family. Who goes with them, your brain and Olga’s body, or her brain and yours?
If you answered that your brain in Olga’s body goes home with your family, than you are saying you are the brain and not the body. Let’s take it further. Another mad scientist abducts you again and through his brilliant technology transfers your consciousness into a robot called D4QP, and into Olga’s body and your former brain goes the programming of the D4QP. Once again your family is tipped off about your whereabouts, the police come to the rescue, there is a shootout, and the scientist and his procedure are extinguished. Who goes home with your family, Olga or D4QP? If you said D4QP, than you are the consciousness, and not the brain or the body.
My personal bare bones definition of consciousness is – you are awake and you know it. By “awake” I don’t mean “not asleep”, but aware that you exist.
Consciousness is difficult for many people to grasp because it is not a thing at all, and looking for it is like trying to use a butterfly net to catch itself. When I say consciousness is not a thing, I don’t mean it doesn’t exist. It is the only thing we can’t deny exists, because we can’t deny our own presence. That’s what Descartes was talking about when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” In trying to search for the only thing the existence of which cannot be denied, Descartes happened on the searching itself. I cannot deny that I am. On the other hand, anything that can be delineated as a thing that can be observed by consciousness, cannot be consciousness itself.
Consciousness is the missing piece in a lot of philosophical puzzles, while ironically also being that without which there couldn’t be a puzzle in the first place. I probably wouldn’t bother writing about it, except that in some recent discussions about free will it became surprisingly apparent that for a lot of people consciousness is too big to see, and thus they miss the forest for the trees. Several people have, for example, insisted that consciousness is a physical thing, because the brain is.
This part SHOULD be easy to clear up. Saying consciousness is a physical thing because it’s inextricable from the brain is akin to saying that a beam of light radiating from a flashlight must be a solid object, because the flashlight is solid, and hence the light can’t pass through glass. This is as ridiculous as saying that sight is an object because it is a function of the physical eye. Awareness is not a physical thing (sight, hearing, taste…), and therefore awareness of awareness isn’t either. To say that awareness is immaterial but consciousness is somehow a physical thing is like having a physical apple hanging from an immaterial branch. Nevertheless, people will still insist that I am a “dualist” if I say that consciousness is different from the brain, and calling someone a “dualist” in philosophy is like calling someone a “communist” in a Tea party convention: if you are a dualist, you are automatically not only wrong, but a social pariah with offensive body odor.
The reason dualist is a bad word is it is associated with the notion that a human is a dual creature made up of two distinct portions: the physical body, and the immortal soul. Saying that you believe everyone has a soul – being something that can’t be proved empirically – is only so much better than saying you believe in unicorns. So, if someone labels me a dualist than it’s obvious I’m just babbling on about fantasy in a state of childish self-delusion. However, you don’t need to believe in souls or leprechauns to be a dualist: if you don’t think that an idea is a physical object, you too are a dualist according to some people. I don’t think this is traditional dualism because consciousness does not have to be synonymous with an immortal soul, or in any way detachable from the material brain in order for it to be immaterial itself. I think this if painfully obvious, but I’m having ongoing debates with people who just refuse to agree with me. An idea doesn’t have mass or weight, and cannot be measured, therefore it isn’t made up of matter. The mind, being made up of thoughts, images, perceptions and associations, none of which are themselves material things, simply cannot be conceived of as a physical object.
I’ve made this argument several times before in online debates, and it got me nowhere. The usual comeback is that if consciousness is not physical, than there is no way that we know of that it can interact with a physical brain, and hence it must be physical. I find it amazing that people will deny an obvious truth that a moment’s introspection makes inarguable, just because it doesn’t fit in with a cherished abstract notion. How can being awake be a substance?
We can think of consciousness as experience. Experience can’t be physical matter. All one has to do is imagine an elephant stepping on a cake. Is that image in your head a chunk of matter? And now that it’s gone did the material evaporate with it? If we don’t yet know how the immaterial mind interacts with the brain, that doesn’t prove that the mind is material. Rather, it just highlights that we don’t know how it works yet. Similarly, if I don’t know how an old film reel can be projected onto a movie screen to produce what looks like real people interacting in the world, it would be a big mistake to conclude that the film I watch on the screen is a dark spool of cellulose.
You might be thinking that we have a good idea how the immaterial mind and material brain communicate with each other because we’ve all heard about things like the firing of neurons and sophisticated neural networks which seem to produce consciousness. There are competing theories and some think it happens on the quantum level within microtubules, and so on, but however it works we can feel fairly confident that science is slowly uncovering the mystery of how the brain produces consciousness (assuming it does). The real problem is going the other way! Let’s say that I want to make a cup of tea. How does my mind tell my body to get up out of my chair to do it? How does an immaterial thought in experience force an object to move? There’s no scientific evidence of psychokinesis, and yet something like that is happening with our own bodies when they obey our commands. If a thought can’t move a spoon, how can it fire a neuron?
You may be thinking that consciousness is something like an amorphous blob of energy in the brain, and so controls the body through channeling something like electricity. If this were the case scientists would likely have already discovered and measured such energy, and it still wouldn’t explain how a thought could control energy.
Some might want to slam the book shut here, embrace reductionist determinism, and declare that the brain/body must control the mind, and not the other way around. Not only does this presuppose that the universe is simpler and more disappointing than me might imagine, it forces a conclusion where there is none, and I don’t think it even makes sense. Thinking the unconscious, material body controls the conscious, thinking mind, is like saying that the tail wags the dog, or the car steers the driver. What we have here is not proof that the consciousness is a mere byproduct of the brain, but a conundrum that science hasn’t solved, and perhaps never will. It is a great mystery, and a reminder that even with sophisticated technology that has surpassed what we would have predicted was possible decades ago, the most fundamental question remains unanswered – how can we immaterial, conscious beings interact with the material reality we seem to exist in?
Apparently we don’t know, so I’m not going to try to answer that question, though I do have my theories*. My focus is just on what consciousness IS, though exploring the problem of how it works helps to see what it isn’t, and how strange it is. So far I’ve only tried to establish the obvious, that it is not a physical thing. But it isn’t any kind of a thing.
Even if we think we understand what consciousness is, it’s still highly elusive. When we think of consciousness we imagine it within consciousness, as an objective thing exterior to us, and miss that it is the thing imagining. It sees, but cannot be seen. It is the perceiver, and not the thing perceived. Here are a few more analogies I’ve thought of (I like making analogies). 1) Consciousness looking for itself is like a box looking for itself inside itself. 2) Consciousness looking for itself is like being a movie projector looking for itself in the movie it projects onto the screen. 3) Consciousness looking for itself is like outer space trying to locate itself in stars, planets, and rocks. How do you look for looking?
To understand consciousness doesn’t require any knowledge of neurochemistry, mathematics, or psychology. Trying to understand consciousness rationally is as unnecessary and misleading as trying to prove to yourself that you exist through mathematical equations. It is self-evident through direct observation. You have to experience being it, and you can’t deny being it. It can’t be encapsulated in a concept, because all encapsulations occur only in consciousness. It can’t be apprehended because it is that which apprehends. Thought can show what consciousness isn’t, and lead to you to decide to observe it directly yourself, but it can’t describe it. Describing consciousness is as possible as seeing sight. [I know I’m being redundant, but it seems necessary for some people to get it.]
Consciousness is easier to see in others than in oneself. We can clearly tell when someone else is conscious or not. The boxer raising his fist in the air is conscious, and the guy lying inert on the mat isn’t. But when it comes to ourselves we know only consciousness, so we have no other experience against which to distinguish it. Unconsciousness can’t be experienced. When I was put under to have all four of my wisdom teeth taken out, there was no missing time in my perception from the point I counted back from one hundred to 89 until I woke up with four missing teeth. My conscious experience was uninterrupted. It went something like “92, 91, 90, 89, It’s over already??” Because we only know what it is like to be enveloped in consciousness, we take it for granted as something that’s just there, as if we existed within it like we do in open air.
We think there’s a limitless outer world of existence, and we are a finite physical thing within it. In reality it’s the opposite: we are existence itself, and the world is a physical thing within us. That seems counter-intuitive, but one only need reflect on dreams to see how it works. Let’s say you dream that you go to the store to buy milk from a cow. You experience yourself getting into your car, driving to the store, entering through an automatic door, walking through aisles, finding the refrigerated goods, selecting a bottle of milk, and walking over to the counter where a cow waits behind the register to serve you. You experience yourself as a physical being navigating through an enormous outer world, but really you are lying on your side and the whole episode takes place merely in your imagination. The situation is similar during waking consciousness, even though there really is an exterior world out there.
Your brain interprets the exterior world and makes a navigable 3D model of it for you in your mind. It’s not just that we see a red rose as it exists; rather, our brain has to recreate it into something we can understand relative to our particular sensory apparatus. Different creatures inhabit different experiential worlds. We don’t reside in the same sort of world as a bat or octopus because we don’t have the same sensory apparatus, and different information is more relevant to their bodies than ours, hence the resultant model of the universe in the bat’s brain doesn’t resemble the one we have. You could say that what we experience as reality is actually an intermediary, imagined interpretation of it. This is why we can create a seeming outer world in our dreams. We use the same capacity to mold the real world in our minds during waking hours.
There is, of course, a naked, unvarnished, un-interpreted reality out there, but we only experience a fraction of it, even though what we experience seems like a totality. We don’t hear all the sounds a dog hears. Sounds and smells that are all important and unavoidable elements of the dog’s universe don’t even exist in ours. Cognizance of the totality of existing things would overwhelm us – we’d probably find a dog’s sense of smell an unwelcome gift – and our particular sensory awareness was designed through evolution to be what is most useful for our survival. Our perceptual world is filtered by our particular senses and biological configuration.
What I’m getting to is that without a human, the human model of the universe – which is the universe as we know it – wouldn’t exist. A bee doesn’t live in a reality we’d recognize if our consciousness were suddenly looking out through its segmented eyes. We wouldn’t be able to interpret it, or function in it.
It doesn’t stop there. Is there existence without experience? This brings us back to the old question about whether a tree falls in the forest if nobody is there to witness it. Just to get around whether or not the falling tree was witnessed by animals, I prefer a different example. Does a meteor hit the moon if astronomers don’t observe it?
There are two easy answers. One is that if it is a fact that it did, than it factually happened. The other is that “what Daddy doesn’t know, won’t hurt him”. The first is abstract conviction and the second is ignorance. They both miss the point. The real question revolves around what existence is, rather than what happened or not.
It’s easiest to think of something as existing if it’s a solid thing you can heft in your hand, like a rock. Dare say the rock doesn’t exist and the counterargument might be pitched at your head, in which case you will duck (or temporarily cease existing yourself). Even though I wouldn’t want to brave the counterargument, I disagree with it on another level. The solidity of the rock and the ability to volley it only exist in consciousness, so the argument merely states that what we perceive in consciousness exists. A stronger argument is that what can be rationally and objectively tested and corroborated exists, even if we can’t directly perceive it (subatomic particles…), yet the problem remains that the empirical evidence only exists within consciousness. Nevertheless, we tend to assume the solid thing perceived within and through consciousness has more reality than consciousness itself, which is the only thing we can’t deny the absolute existence of.
The meteor does not hit the moon without consciousness. Not only would there be nothing to witness or know it happened, but only consciousness differentiates the meteor from anything/everything else. There would be no “meteor”, no “moon”, no “impact”, and nothing would “happen”. Consciousness imparts meaning, significance, order, and consistency to reality. The event would still occur, but even the concepts of “event” and “occur” wouldn’t apply.
From a first-person perspective consciousness is awareness, existence, and knowing. It is that in which everything else exists. Consciousness doesn’t exist in the brain, but the brain in it. If this sounds daft, consider how bizarre it would be to say, “a brain has me” rather than “I have a brain”. We are not material brains in a physical universe, but immaterial consciousnesses in an imperceptible field of awareness. That’s the realm in which we exist and experience, whereas the substance of our bodies plod along unconsciously following causality and the laws of physics.
Clearly, I’m expressing a subjective standpoint, but what other way is there to apprehend subjectivity itself? While I prize objectivity and reason highly as a tool to pull back the curtains of ignorance and self-delusion, it can’t be used to identify consciousness. Science has not found consciousness through probing the brain or through any other means, and there has been a concerted effort to do so. Objectively speaking, we can’t find ourselves!
Subjectively speaking, we ARE consciousness, and that’s why we can’t find it. We can only be it. Because everything else exists within consciousness, consciousness cannot be a separate thing within itself. Another way to put it is that because consciousness is seeing, it cannot also be something separate from itself, and smaller than itself, that it sees. We are simultaneously an “I” that knows it exists, and breathes existence into everything else, while we are also nothing that can be found, and we don’t even know how it’s possible for us to interact with the material world.
It’s probably not all as mysterious as that, because I rather do think we will find an explanation, and I have my own theory, though it’s just a guess*. However, even if we pinpoint precisely how consciousness and the brain/body interact, that won’t change what consciousness is, and that is an immaterial awareness that brings existence into being.
* My guess on how the mind and brain communicate is that they don’t, but rather the brain and mind act together as one, simultaneously, and inextricably. I think consciousness is dependent on a brain and a living body. In order to have awareness of awareness one first needs awareness, and to be aware one needs perception, and hence sensory organs. Then the brain is necessary for the type of intelligence that can produce self-awareness, as in the ability to distinguish the self from that which is outside and separate from it, and such an ability would also seem dependent on having a body with boundaries. Further, other bodies with brains are necessary for us to have awareness of others awarenesses, or selves, which allows for a more cumulative consciousness. This is where art and literature become valuable, because they allow us to expand our own consciousness through the searching and discovery of other consciousnesses. We enrich the universe for each other.
Sure, there are a lot of theories and even studies and evidence to show that consciousness may exist independent of living organisms, or may be a fundamental quality of all existence. I’m not sure how conclusive that evidence is, though, and it might be selective interpretation of facts in order to come to a conclusion in accordance with wishful thinking. For example, those who believe in reincarnation are more likely to find anecdotal evidence of consciousness independent of the brain convincing. I haven’t seen anything that convinces me of an ubiquitous consciousness, so, for now, I think the more plausible explanation is that it’s inherent to a living body/brain. I’m not writing off other explanations, I just think they are much less likely.
I’ll be back to address how this applies to free will, and why it is important to sort out the free will debate soon. I wrote a lot about free will before, but realized after the fact that people wouldn’t or couldn’t follow my argument if we couldn’t agree on what consciousness is and isn’t.