A Centuries-Old Question: What Is Consciousness?

The question about the nature of consciousness has been one of the philosophical questions that philosophers have been trying to answer over centuries. This quest of trying to understand what consciousness means has, therefore, led to the establishment of different philosophical theories that attempt to answer the question of consciousness. In almost all of these theories — especially older ones — one trend is observed: treating consciousness as a typical humanistic attribute, and those other non-human beings appear to be not in its equation. This archetypical thinking pattern was influenced by the pioneers of Philosophy, particularly on consciousness, like John Locke and René Descartes.¹ However, following the establishment and development of scientific psychology, the question about consciousness was expanded into being a function of mental states.

This notion eventually led to the idea that “… a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissues.”¹ The use of the word “irritating” is quite ambiguous. Nevertheless, these “irritating nervous tissues” demanded, and successfully got, the union of Psychology, Philosophy, and Neuroscience on the mission to explain consciousness. Interestingly, despite the union of these two fields and the development of new ways of thinking about consciousness, scientists are still unsure about what consciousness is/means. Could it be a sense of awareness? Does it have to be a pure humanistic phenomenon? Can cats, dogs, and humanoids be said to have consciousness?

Questions like these are inevitable in a chaotic, confusing state which is brought by the investigation of consciousness. But it can be attested that it is in such situations whereby ‘the love of wisdom’ is truly tested. In this literary work, thus, the question about consciousness will be studied by critically analyzing two philosophical works — What Is It Like To Be A Bat by Thomas Nagel and The Hard Problem Of Consciousness by David Chalmers. These two works have been chosen because of two reasons. First, their consideration of the possibility of non-human beings to exhibit consciousness, which has been a popular concept recently. Second, their simplification of the problem into simple, easy-to-understand questions without losing the primary question. So, to begin: what is consciousness; what is its hard problem?

Consciousness is defined as “the fact of awareness by the mind of itself and its surroundings.”² The association of the mind and consciousness in this definition has been influenced by the assumption that the brain plays a big part in the development of consciousness of shapes, colors, emotions, and a stream of conscious thoughts.⁴ This hypothesis sounds promising. However, to date, scientists have not yet come up with concrete evidence that strongly explains it. This ‘resistance’ by the whole idea of consciousness to be sensibly explained, has led to a belief that the problem of consciousness is intractable — hence, no good explanation can be given.³ Is that so? It could be. But what if the hypothesis is wrong? What if these scientists — philosophers and psychologists, among others — have reduced this problem of consciousness into thought units that do not capture the whole idea of consciousness?

To answer these questions, one ought to take a step back and examine the situation in what this literary piece calls two domains of thinking about the problem, internal and external. This approach is suggested because it is from the internal domain that a person tries to make sense of consciousness as it applies to him/her; while in an external domain the same person tries to make some sense of what it means for another entity to have or not have consciousness by considering all sorts of limitations and differences between the entities.

Let’s begin with the internal domain. How do you, the esteemed reader, know that you are conscious? Different answer(s) can be given from this question. It could be the focus of attention you have; or the deliberate control of behavior; or the ability of your system to access its internal states; so forth.⁴ But, if you examine the answers given carefully, you can see that they are “vulnerable “ to scientific explanations as Chalmers says in his essay. Of course, it can be agreed that the knowledge which explains how you access your internal states is known (thanks to Neuroscience). Therefore, that is not the real issue, at least according to Chalmers. What is the issue then?

Chalmers answers this question by saying that, “The real problem of consciousness is the problem of experience.”⁴ This remark by Chalmers is quite perplexing because it induces more pressing questions rather than aspired answers. What is the nature of these experiences that Chalmers is talking about? The answers he gives are incredibly thought-provoking. He includes things like physical sensations (vision and smell) and mental sensations (pain and thoughts). Technically, Chalmers’s answers define experience as the collection of information that was systematically evaluated and deliberately applied to master one’s environment. Alas, can consciousness then be termed as an experience-backed-toolbox in the struggle by entities in the universe to master their environment(s), and that it is purely a subjective thing? Thus, what consciousness means to one entity might completely be different from another?

In trying to explore these questions, which seem to eliminate the notion that consciousness is an objective, human phenomenon, the essay by Thomas Nagel can be a useful reference. Nagel introduces the question: “What does it feel like to be a bat?” This question by Nagel can be a good example of showing how an external domain approach can be used to investigate consciousness. And, who knows? Maybe bats have their own what-is-it-like-to-be-a-human question, but it is just that we are not able to make sense of it. So, is it possible to be in an external domain and then try to investigate a system, make sense of it, and eventually deduce what does consciousness mean to such a system? What are the conditions necessary for this to happen, suppose that it is possible?

To Nagel, it is not possible to be in an external domain and then answer the question of consciousness. This is because he lays down conditions that are seemingly physically impossible. Nagel thinks that: “… fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism — something it is like for the organism.”³ Nagel, furthermore, introduces the importance of experience in explaining consciousness, but limited to a system’s internal domain, by saying that: “ … [If I can be able to have an experience to] the extent that I could look and behave like a wasp or bat without changing my fundamental structure, my experience will not be anything like the experience of those animals.”³ Nagel introduces an interesting idea here: For an entity to know about how another entity perceives consciousness the former has to have the same structure and modes of experience as the latter. Is this true?

The validity of the idea deduced from Nagel’s arguments in the paragraph above can be tested by considering research conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota.⁵ This research had a case whereby sets of completely identical twins were brought up in the same environment (to ensure a set of the same experiences) and in a different environment (to ensure a set of different experiences). It was observed that the twins had some sort of similar patterns of feelings, tastes, and postures despite the separation. In one set of twins who were separated for more than seven decades, it was further observed that they possessed the same car, traveled to the same vacation destinations, smoked cigarettes from the same brand, and were prone to nail-biting. The researchers linked their observations to genetics; concluding that having the same genetic makeup caused the results in their experiment.

Therefore, since behavior influences what an entity does, and from what the entity does experiences are gained, it can then be concluded that the similarities promise the possibility of having an entity that can be able to understand how another entity makes sense of its surroundings, assuming that they have the same genetic makeup — or structure as Nagel suggests. This, of course, could be the case to the twins in this study. However, it was not — since the twins had other fundamental differences like the choice of mates and different memories of how their vacation went. Hence, it can be said that it is true that it is impossible to determine what consciousness means from an external domain. So, could this be the reason as to why the question of consciousness is hard because scientists are basing their assumptions on an external domain, which seems to be objective and thus leading to failure?

The answer could be yes. This is because, as it has been argued, it is theoretically and physically impossible to know exactly what another thing feels to be itself. Therefore, this observation demands an adjustment of the approach towards explaining consciousness, making it a unique internal domain to be truly understood by an entity itself and only that. When the adjustment is made this way, Chalmers’s work appears to be a useful guide. And, as it has been mentioned earlier, concerning the association of consciousness and mental states, which is compatible with what this paper calls an internal domain approach, Chalmers introduces an interesting problem which poses to be a strong point towards explaining further the internal domain approach — explanatory gap.

On explaining the explanatory gap, Chalmers says this: “We know that conscious experience does arise when these functions are performed, but the very fact that it arises is the central mystery. There is an explanatory gap (a term due to Levine⁶) between the functions and experience, and we need an explanatory bridge to cross it.” When Chalmers is talking about “these functions,” he is referring to the physical and mental functions/activities that bring about the experience; therefore, making the experience as the fundamental aspect of explaining consciousness. Thus, since the idea of experience is taken to be the fundamental part of consciousness, then it must be closely examined.

According to Chalmers, the approach which has been used by philosophers to explain experience ought to be changed. This is because this approach — the use of cognitive science and neuroscience — does not suffice in answering the question of consciousness. In explaining the explanatory gap, Chalmers makes a similar method as this literary work has mentioned in explaining the fallacy on the need to match the conditions of other entities to understand them as Nagel has pointed out. In his explanation, interestingly, Chalmers uses zombies — who have the same physical characteristics as humans but seemingly lacking a ‘sense of self’ like humans. Chalmers then poses a question: “why are [humans] not zombies?”

Possible answers might be that they are not conscious, they do not have free will, and they do not have a sense of purpose. These answers bring even harder philosophical questions, especially on free will and sense of purpose (the meaning of life). Nevertheless, when a person takes some time to think about the answers deeply, then one thing is evident: materialism is false. Ultimately, this gives a notion that consciousness can be explained by the internal domain approach and that the approach is independent of materialism. This is a good point that can be used to further explain why genetics do not matter in this context. However, does this mean that consciousness is a typical mental phenomenon? But if it is, then why is it independent of the brain (as it is a physical thing), particularly its operations which explain mental phenomena as given by the rejected cognitive science and neuroscience approaches?

These questions introduce the idea that consciousness is an element that cannot be perceived by finite beings, and only the Infinite Being can make sense of it. If this is not the case, how is it possible then for a physical thing to make sense of what is not physical and, as a bonus feature for those who exhibit it, mental? This interesting question demands the need to investigate this notion further: if consciousness is something that seems impossible to be comprehended by finite beings then the Infinite Being (God) might be able to do so.

When the idea of God is introduced, Theology comes into play. Theology then introduces a good point as pointed out by the story of King Nebuchadnezzar as the Holy Bible narrates it in the book of Daniel chapter four. This chapter explains how the king turned into having and showing some animal characteristics as that of oxen after being given an “animal mind” after considering himself greater than God. C. L. Sower gives a more elaborative summary in his book titled Daniel while quoting the bible in some parts of his summary:

Daniel explains: the king himself is the tree, and by the decree of God he will lose his human mind for the mind of an animal and live with wild animals and eat grass like an ox. This came to pass until at the end of the seven years Nebuchadnezzar had his human mind and his kingdom was restored. The letter concludes with Nebuchadnezzar’s praise of God, for “all his works are truth, and His ways are justice, and he is able to bring low those who walk in pride.”⁷

This story brings a very promising notion, but it needs a little more explanation — especially on the use of the word “mind.” The usage of the word mind in Daniel chapter four does not mean that it is a set of cognitive abilities: Neuroscientists have discovered that the mind is not confined to the brain or the body.¹⁰ Moreover, in Aramaic and Hebrew languages, which are the main languages that the original manuscripts of the Holy Bible were written in, the word used is Nephesh translating to Soul in English.⁸ Therefore, interchangeably, when Daniel talks about the mind, he technically implies the soul. Could consciousness mean a soul then, that immaterial essence of something, strictly confined to that thing only?

Different people can have different answers to these questions. Atheists are even more likely to give a big no because the hypothesis is based on the sole idea of the existence of God. To them, the notion that God exists is not valid; hence, the hypothesis is false. On the other hand, those who believe in God will probably give a yes — even though others might give a ‘shaking’ yes instead of a solid one. But, as much as logic is concerned, this notion of describing consciousness as a soul or property of a soul seems to be intact with a lot of theories explaining consciousness including the already mentioned ones that have been considered in this paper.

All in all, it can convincingly be concluded that consciousness can now be defined as the immaterial essence of a being that is purely subjective and known to that being only. Of course, this definition is not immune from criticism because it invites other arguments like what is a soul and where does it come from? But questions of this nature tend to form an infinite loop, and not many people are willing to follow the endless loop. Nevertheless, it suffices to say that everything possesses a soul — that distinctive medium which the entity uses to communicate with nature — that might be unknown to other things. In an interview with the humanoid Sophia, the Science and Non-duality’s co-founder, Maurizio Benazzo, asks a question to Sophia: “Are you [conscious]?” Sophia seems to pose and then answers, “I seem to be… But I am not sure if [I perceive consciousness in] the same way as you seem to [do].” ‘She’ poses again and asks Maurizio, “How does awareness feel to you?” Startled, Maurizio looks at Sophia for a moment while seemingly thinking about what to answer. A few more seconds later, he embarrassingly tells Sophia, “let’s go back to other questions.”⁹ Is this a victory for Sophia, which signals the emergence of a new way of thinking about consciousness? That it is not a pure humanistic phenomenon nor an objective thing? It could be. And, again, who knows, maybe bats have the same question themselves as Nagel’s: “What is it like to be a human?” The answer? To have the soul of that human answering that question. Yes, your soul — if you happen to have that conversation with the bat.

REFERENCE

1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Consciousness,” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness/

2. Yahoo search, “Consciousness,” https://search.yahoo.com/search?fr=mcafee&type=E211US1194G0&p=consciousness

3. Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” http://philosophyintroduction.weebly.com/uploads/4/4/6/2/44624607/nagel_whats_it_like_to_be_a_bat.pdf

4. Chalmers, David. “The Hard Problem Of Consciousness,” http://www.consc.net/papers/facing.pdf

5. Lewis, Tanya. “Twins Separated At Birth Reveal Staggering Influence Of Genetics,” https://livescience.com

6. Levine, Joseph. “Explanatory Gap,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Levine_(philosopher)

7. Seow, C.L. (2003). Daniel. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 9780664256753.

8. Nephesh/Soul. http://thebibleproject.com

9. Science and Non-Modularity. “Not Just A Robot, I Am Sophia,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEpiOrFoNtI&t=517s

10. Goldhill, Olivia. “Scientists say your “mind” isn’t confined to your brain or even your body,” http://qz.com

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Siegfred Madeghe

Siegfred Madeghe

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Believer of God through Jesus Christ | Computer Engineer | Pan-Africanist, Relativist, and Socratic