What is Consciousness?
Consciousness is one of those words that can have a plethora of different meanings. Upon hearing the word consciousness what does it mean for you?
In its most basic form, it is the thinking part of us. “I think, therefore I am”. Where in contrast, the person in a coma would be considered unconscious – not thinking or have any kind of awareness of themselves or of their surroundings.
On a deeper level, consciousness can be a reference to being alive or sentient. The person in the coma still has consciousness, even though the brain may not be having active thought processes. Therefore, the act of ‘thinking’ is not the only sign of being conscious.
We could argue that animals and plants both have some level of consciousness too. Merely for the fact that they are alive. Obviously, animals may be more self-aware than plants, but both can be aware of their environment and so most philosophers agree that consciousness ensures, to some extent anyway.
What about rocks, mountains, water or the planet as a whole? Does consciousness extend to these also?
Before we get into answering this we shall explore why consciousness is such an issue for science to comprehend and give any definite answers on the topic.
The first reason is that consciousness is subjective. Any true experience of it is based on our own, well, experience. I know that I am conscious but I am not entirely sure that you are.
The second reason science has a hard time with it is that by definition, science is objective. It studies that which it can measure. You cannot measure, prob or probe that which can only be experienced subjectively. Therefore, we could say that according to science, consciousness doesn’t exist. Yet the irony here is that it takes consciousness to do science. It takes consciousness to work out that we have no way of studying consciousness, to then come to the rather illogical conclusion that if it cannot be measured or experienced outside of ourselves, that there is obviously no such thing.
But we still experience life. We interact with reality and our environment. Our emotional state is invoked when we hear particular pieces of music which is meaningful to us, the artwork we see and the faces we recognise. Of course, all of this is subjective, and it is this subjectivity that could be our consciousness in action.
There have been great leaps of scientific advancement in the last few decades regarding studies of the brain. Neuroscience can demonstrate areas of the brain becoming active when certain subjectivity is experienced or when a subject is asked to think about different things. We know that habitual behaviour creates pathways within the brain and how to change these. Overall there is definitely a correlation between brain activity and our subjective experiences. For some, this is a good enough explanation and this is where the argument ends. Consciousness is simply the end result of different chemical reactions, electricity and a few other bits and bobs going on in the brain, allowing us to think, feel and experience life.
For others though this is nowhere near a good enough explanation and just because we kind of understand how the brain manages thoughts doesn’t mean that this is the root of consciousness. This is simply the brain interpreting consciousness and turning consciousness into thoughts – if it even does that.
We do not understand where thoughts originate, we do not really understand where memory is stored, though we do kind of understand how the brain utilises memory. There are so many unanswered questions regarding the brain and its functions that many still consider consciousness to be a force much deeper than simply having a subjective awareness.
It’s in here somewhere
SO, WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS?
Are our thoughts and awareness consciousness in the true meaning of the word?
I would say no. No, it’s not. By this definition, if a true artificially intelligent computer can manifest thoughts and awareness – does it have consciousness?
With the word consciousness having so many meanings attributed to it, in one sense I guess AI does, as it has streams of consciousness. But we are looking deeper here. Much deeper.
I would succumb to believing that our true consciousness is life itself. The force that gives us life.
This force runs through every living thing, and philosophers speculate that this is not just restricted to what we deem ‘alive’, or sentient beings but could be attributed to literally everything even if it is at some kind of primeval level.
In his TED talk, philosopher David Chalmers explores the idea that consciousness could be a fundamental ingredient of the universe itself and that it may also be universal. The rocks we spoke about earlier? Yup, they have some degree of consciousness. Planet as a whole? Yup, it an alive system. It is postulated that even the building blocks of matter, the particles within the quantum realm which create the atoms, which in turn create stuff, also has some degree of consciousness.
What he means by a ‘fundamental ingredient’ of the universe is that there has to be certain factors at play for the universe to exist. Space is one. There has to be space for the universe to exist in. Time is another, from the big bang to now, the universe has existed over a linear time frame. And now consciousness is thrown into that same mix.
He goes on to say:
“Consciousness might be universal. Every system might have some degree of consciousness. This view is sometimes called panpsychism: pan for all, psych for mind, every system is conscious, not just humans, dogs, mice, flies, but even elementary particles. Even a photon has some degree of consciousness. The idea is not that photons are intelligent or thinking. It’s not that a photon is wracked with angst because it’s thinking, “Aww, I’m always buzzing around near the speed of light. I never get to slow down and smell the roses.” No, not like that. But the thought is maybe photons might have some element of raw, subjective feeling, some primitive precursor to consciousness…
…If it’s [consciousness] fundamental, like space and time and mass, it’s natural to suppose that it might be universal too, the way they are. It’s also worth noting that although the idea seems counterintuitive to us, it’s much less counterintuitive to people from different cultures, where the human mind is seen as much more continuous with nature.”
Chalmers work is also mirrored by renowned theoretical physicist Dr John Hagelin. Hagelin who has worked at both the European Center for Particle Physics (CERN) in Switzerland and also the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in California believes that the energetic Unified Field, the most fundamental aspect of physical reality is consciousness.
This is fascinating, as it leads perfectly into areas of metaphysics such a the collective consciousness and the superconscious, which we shall explore separately later.
And so I invite you to take the time to watch both videos below.
The first is Chalmers TED talk, followed by Hagelin’s explanation of consciousness within the Unified Field of reality.
I find the argument interesting that for some, the root of consciousness is simply a product of the brain. Therefore, the brain dies, subjectivity dies with it and consciousness is gone, while for others, myself included, consciousness is something outside of ourselves. It is our essence. Our core being. Our life-force.
I suppose the question is: is consciousness created by the brain or does consciousness create the brain?