The subject of consciousness has been a fertile landscape for a great deal of disagreement between philosophers specializing in the philosophy of mind and other philosophical disciplines.
One philosopher of a more skeptical bent explains that “Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it has evolved” (1). Moreover, neurophilosopher J. R. Smythies suggests that while consciousness is indeed difficult to define it is still a reality that is supported by his experience: “The consciousness of other people may be for me an abstraction, but my own consciousness is for me a reality” (2). But despite many different voices, philosophers working in this field generally agree that we can know some things about consciousness (3).
So, what are some of these things we can know about it with some degree of reasonability? I also suggest that by examining these we might be able to arrive at a worthy definition of the term.
Firstly, consciousness exists. One of the world’s leading experts on the topic, philosophy professor David Chalmers, a Director of the Center for Consciousness, contends that “consciousness is the thing we know about more directly than we know about anything in the world” (4). Chalmers credits the great philosopher Rene Descarte’s argument that we could doubt the existence of almost everything in the world that we perceive to exist (including physical objects we perceive in the environment, other people etc.), but the one thing we can’t doubt is that we are conscious. He contends that it is presented to us more directly than anything else in the world. In other words, one has to be conscious in order to doubt that she is conscious. Consciousness can therefore be considered as axiomatic, namely, that to deny its existence one has to assume its existence in the premise to the argument. Chalmers says that “the number one datum of the science of consciousness and the philosophy of consciousness is that there is consciousness.”
Second, one can suggest that consciousness consists of mental states such as desires, thoughts, feelings, and emotions. These mental states are immaterial, and are not physical. When Jack thinks of a chair, a chair does not literally form in his head or get lodged in his brain somehow, yet it still remains that Jack is thinking of a chair. When one thinks of something his thought forms what one might say is an immaterial mental content or mental data/information. Consciousness must therefore be immaterial.
Third, consciousness is also self-awareness (introspection) and an awareness of the world (extrospection). Philosopher J.P. Moreland explains that this is “what you are aware of when you introspect” (5). Introspection is that of looking into oneself which consists of the realm of feelings, sensations, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and desires. When a patient on an operating table loses her access to these introspective abilities of her mental states then we say that she “loses consciousness” or has “lost consciousness.” She is no longer aware of herself or the external environment. Similarly, when the patient wakes up we say that she has “regained consciousness.”
Philosopher Ayn Rand also suggested that consciousness included that of extrospection. This is one’s experience of the external world, “Extrospection is a process of cognition directed outward,” which, says Rand, is a “process of apprehending some existent(s) of the external world” (6). Thus, through our consciousness we perceive objects and entities in environments that exist external to our minds. We perceive chairs, tables, people, and form beliefs on these perceptions (for example, that minds exist other than my own). Rand’s is an important point for it suggests that our consciousness does not create reality as some have suggested. Rather our consciousness accesses reality and through this process discovers the world that exists independently of our mind.
Fourth, and importantly, is the subjective element to consciousness. Even if we could describe every physical fact about a specific organism we would still leave out its conscious state (“what it is like” to be that organism: what does it experience). Philosopher Thomas Nagel articulated this point in his 2012 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel is critical of physicalism, the view that everything within the universe can be reduced to physical properties and this includes mental states of human beings and biological organisms. He argues that from the basis of the “widespread phenomenon” of consciousness one can extend the assumption to other complex biological life forms, including bats. He writes that a conscious, organism, by having conscious mental states, also has a subjective character of experience (7). In other words, for an organism to have conscious experience means that there is something it is like to be that organism. The conscious experience of an organism can only be experienced from one point-of-view: the organism’s point of view. Moreland agrees with Nagel saying that you “can not describe consciousness states using the language of physical science. All you can do is correlate them.” For example, by simply introspecting, one has a way of knowing about what’s happening in his own mind that is not available to me, a doctor, or a neuroscientist. Moreland explains that “A scientist could know more about what’s happening in my brain than I do, but he couldn’t know more about what’s happening in my mind than I do” (8).
So, given these characteristics, we can pinpoint what consciousness is, but how do we define it? Moreland’s definition, which is shared by many philosophers, is one that seems appropriate, simply that “consciousness consists of sensations, thoughts, emotions, desires, beliefs, and free choices that make us alive and aware.” These make us alive in the sense of us being able to look within ourselves (introspect) as well as outward at the world (extrospect).
Nonetheless, how one views consciousness will almost certainly be influenced by his world view and belief system. For Christians, consciousness is immaterial but also linked to God, therefore, supernatural. Many view consciousness as residing in the soul but which also remains in a very deep connection and integration with the brain. This is, however, a view incompatible with philosophical naturalism or physicalism which posits that the physical, natural universe is all that exists. On this view everything within the universe is explicable by physics, and by consequence no room exists for supernatural realities. Rather, consciousness is reduced by the naturalist to just physical properties or is explained on the basis that mental properties emerge from physical properties (9). John Searle, for example, said that in his view “consciousness is caused by brain processes,” thus being nothing more than a product of biology (10). Similarly, neuroscientist Barry Beyerstein explains that “just as the kidneys produce urine, the brain produces consciousness” (11). In disagreement, Moreland argues that if we begin with only matter at the Big Bang then no matter how atoms are reconfigured at no point would immaterial consciousness ever emerge from the process which would render doubt on naturalistic and physicalist explanations of it (12).
1. Sutherland, S. 1989. “Consciousness.” In Macmillan Dictionary of Psychology. p. 95.
2. Smythies, J. 1969. “Some Aspects of Consciousness.” In Koestler, A. & Smythies, J. Beyond Reductionism. p. 235.
3. Antony, M. 2001. “Is consciousness ambiguous?” In Journal of Consciousness Studies. 8: 19-44.
4. LennyBound. 2009. David Chalmers on Consciousness. Available.
5. Closer To Truth. Arguing God from Consciousness? – J.P. Moreland. Available.
6. Rand, A. 1967. The Objectivist. p. 22.
7. Nagel, T. 1974. What Is It Like to Be a Bat? The Philosophical Review. 83 (4): 436.
8. Do We Have Souls? Lee Strobel interviews Dr. J.P. Moreland. Available.
9. BiolaUniversity. 2013. Science, Consciousness, and the Soul – J.P. Moreland. Available.
10. “What Is Consciousness?” in Closer to Truth, Interview.
11. “Do Brains Make Minds?” on Closer to Truth, Interview
12. BiolaUniversity. 2013. What is Consciousness? – J.P. Moreland. Available.