Understanding consciousness and why it’s so interesting: A brief overview

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December 2, 2016.

During my travels ‘consciousness’ is a term that has taken on a variety of meanings depending upon the subculture I’m in. Now that I have read a little about it in the context of analytical philosophy, I’m often startled when I hear a Buddhist friend or a Jungian friend use the term because their understanding of it seems at odds with how I’m starting to understand it.

Consciousness is a term that we were using in the drug scene, long before Buddhism and Jung entered my life. When we took drugs, we all knew our consciousness was altered. What this meant was that reality changed. Or, to be more precise, our perception of reality changed. In those days, it was taken – at least I took it – that this distorted view of reality was reflecting something more real about reality. A reality that lay behind the reality that we normally had access to. This started my fascination with the truth of reality. If what I was experiencing when I was ‘straight’ was not all that reality was, then what was this ‘real’ reality that hid behind these appearances?

Psychosis is in another class altogether, in terms of altered consciousness. More mundanely, though not mundane, are the experiences we have when we go on retreat and meditate (although some would correct me here. These experiences are said to lead to direct insight!). From all these perspectives, we can develop ideas about what consciousness is. It’s the thing that changes, and when it changes, reality looks different. Thus, my friends from the drug scene, Buddhism and Jungian converts – whose emphasis is on the symbolic processes of the unconscious –  accept ‘consciousness’ as an umbrella term that means the lens through which reality is revealed to us.

And in truth, this is not such a bad definition and perhaps not so far removed from how philosophers understand this term.

To try and grasp how philosophers use the term consciousness, don’t think of your whole conscious experience at this moment (thoughts, feelings, mood, sounds, smells, your entire visual experience etc – all the thing you can pay attention to and be aware of) –  instead, try to narrow it down a little. When you look at these words, you are seeing the blue words on a white background, and the words contrast with the background. Focus on the white, it’s a certain colour experience (or tone, if you want to be pedantic. I use the example of colour because it’s a favourite of the philosophers). This experience is happening to you. The way philosophers speak is that this white experience is a phenomenal experience. It is an example of phenomenal consciousness. It is subjective – a personal experience happening to you and to which you alone have access. Your experience of the external world is causing you to have a sensation of the colour white.

In this way, we have experiences of not only colours. We feel pains (I can empathise with your toothache because I have had one myself but I have not experienced your toothache), we feel angry, we feel hot and cold, we hear noises, we enjoy music, we feel the water on our skin when we swim. These are all phenomenal experiences. These are all examples of phenomenal consciousness. The one thing that they have in common is that they are all happening to you. They are subjective and personal, though the quality of them varies. This is the consciousness that philosophers speak about when they talk about phenomenal consciousness, and when they talk about it (which they do a lot) it is because this type of consciousness poses a problem for philosophy and science.

In trying to understand consciousness, and why it is such a problem in philosophy and science, it’s important to understand that the nature of consciousness is closely tied to the nature of reality. Most philosophers (of the analytic variety) and scientists believe that reality – the universe that we are in –  is physical. It is made up of physical stuff, like the smallest kind of particles in existence. From this physical stuff, the rest of reality is built. Science wants to limit reality to what we can measure and test, and in the end, this is physical (although this gets complicated, because scientists posit things that they can’t know about directly, or measure with their instruments). Anyhow, this view that reality is physical has ramifications for how we think about the mind. If everything is physical, then the mind must be physical. It must in some way be the same as the brain. We are made up of the brain and body, nothing else. There is nothing ‘added’ to that.

This contrasts with how we intuitively think of ourselves. When I shut my eyes, I can picture in my mind a lovely beach scene and, if I focus, I can imagine myself sitting around a fire by the beach sipping coconut milk from a coconut. How cool. But, how does that happen? How can I have an experience in my head of a beach, when I’m not at the beach, when all that there is inside my head is this grey organ called a brain that is made up of billions of neurons? It seems that the ‘picture’ I get in my head is different from these billions of neurons. The picture is not physically there, all that is there is a lump of grey matter. How can they be the same thing? How can these neurons result in me having this experience of a beach? This is the mystery of consciousness.

The example of the beach follows through to all our experiences of phenomenal consciousness. How do I experience the colour red? How does something seem red to me, when all I am is a bunch of cells? When all that is in my head is billions of neurons? It seems this can’t be right. How can I account for my experience of reality at all? It feels a certain way to me. There seems to be something extra, something added on to the neurons. I feel like I must be more than just these cells, that consciousness is somehow different to just the physical stuff that makes up these cells. And indeed, this is what some philosophers argue.

But before going forward, let’s look back a bit to understand why, in part, the argument that consciousness is physical is so compelling. We all know that Descartes said “I think therefore I am”. This was the conclusion he reached when he grappled with this problem of consciousness. He figured he could hear his thoughts in his head, so they must be real, whereas the physical world around him was something that he could doubt. It was possible that the physical world wasn’t real. But the one thing he couldn’t doubt was that he was thinking. This led him to believe that there were two substances in the world. A physical substance – which accounted for the world around him, and a non-physical – or thinking – substance. Lots of people hate this idea. The main problem with it is, if these two substances are so different, how do they interact with each other? How can something non-physical cause something physical to happen? For example, if I have a thought that I want to write down now, and the thought is not physical, and I have another non-physical thought that I need to tap the keys on my keyboard to write down my thought, then how do these two non-physical thoughts floating around in my head interact with my physical brain and cause my physical brain to cause my hands to type these words?

Most philosophers and scientists take it that our thoughts are physical, that they are the result of brain processes. More generally, consciousness is physical. But there are a couple of compelling arguments that are intuitively like the beach example, and these have persuaded other philosophers that the idea that consciousness is physical is flawed.

Briefly, the knowledge argument outlines a scenario where a scientist, Mary, has access to every physical fact about colour, but has never experienced colour. Even though she knows everything physically there is to know, when she sees red for the first time she experiences something new. Therefore, the experience of red is something beyond what is captured in our physical knowledge of the world. While many have argued against this conclusion, others believe that it suggests that consciousness is not identical to the physical.

The conceivability argument is another approach that challenges the idea that consciousness is physical. One way to understand this argument is in terms of philosophical zombies. Imagine you had a zombie twin. They are the same as you. Their cells are the same, their brain is the same, they behave the same way, they cry out when they are in pain. But they don’t experience anything. Remember when I described what phenomenal consciousness was like? The experience of white, the experience of water on your skin when you swim? They don’t have any of this. They are like robots. They seem identical to us, but they don’t have this vivid sense of reality that we have. They don’t have any sense of reality. If it is conceivable that these zombies could exist, if it’s possible they could exist, then it shows that the experiences we have, these phenomenal experiences, are in some way different to just our physical brains because the zombies have the same brains as us – but there is nothing it is like to be them.

The philosophers who oppose these arguments think that the intuitions that support them are misguided. These philosophers believe that, while phenomenal consciousness is not currently explained by neuroscience, it is in principle a problem that science can (and will in time) explain in terms that are physical. There is nothing ‘extra’ to explain. Consciousness is a result of the brain doing its thing, and it has arisen because of evolution.

So! This is where we find ourselves. If consciousness is physical, it fits into the physical universe. And for people who accept that the universe is physical, this makes sense. We just need to do the science to show how consciousness fits into this picture. But if it doesn’t fit into this picture, if consciousness can’t be neatly explained as a physical phenomenon, then what does this say about our picture of reality? How else can we understand reality?

It’s been suggested that if we can’t fit consciousness into this physical picture, as a function of the brain, then perhaps it is something that is fundamental to reality, like gravity. Physics posits the fundamental forces of reality –  electromagnetic force, strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity – could consciousness be amongst these? In this way, it didn’t mysteriously arise in certain living organisms as they increased in complexity via evolution. It was always there. It is part of the fabric of the universe.

This sounds great, but working out how to paint this picture is complicated, technical – basically hard work. It’s beyond my understanding but there are people doing this work. For example, say that consciousness can’t be understood physically because it is internal to the states of mind that have it in a way that science can’t measure or explain. If so, it’s going to be difficult to understand how it relates to the rest of the physical world. If consciousness is part of the fabric of reality, and the physical world is made up of the tiniest particles in existence, then somehow each of these particles also has consciousness built into it. To many people, this seems mad. It means that a rock is conscious. All the tiny atoms that make up a rock are composed, in part, of consciousness. A reply to this is that it’s a kind of proto-consciousness. It’s not the full-blown type that we are familiar with. But even if that were the case, how do these tiny bits of proto-consciousness join to make the sort of conscious experience I have?

In the opposite direction, if this consciousness throughout the universe is just one big blob of consciousness, a big unity, then how can we all experience ourselves as separate from one another and still be part of this unity? We each seem to have an individual window to reality. How is that window related to the whole thing?

Or say there is a ‘level’ of reality where consciousness and the physical are kind of mixed together so that they are the one substance, and the world as we know it somehow arises from that.

As I said, this is beyond me. But it’s exciting, don’t you think?

I don’t believe we do know what reality is, not really. It is presented to us, and we experience it in a certain way, and even though we all have our own individual experience we co-exist in a social world and accept that those around us have a (fairly) similar experience. But I like to think that this bubble we are in is not the whole story. It’s a good story, it’s an enjoyable story, we have partners and friends and goals and desires. We have lives. But beyond what is normally presented to us is a great mystery. And sometimes, if we are lucky, we get a glimpse of that.

Analytical philosophers are not a mystical bunch overall. They try hard to fit their arguments into the knowledge we have gained through science – even those who feel that science may be limited in answering these questions. But, to my mind, there is something transcendental about a universe that is pervaded with consciousness. I don’t think many would agree with me, but there you have it.

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