What Is Consciousness? Can We Study It?
The concept of consciousness has been a challenging and controversial topic among philosophers for centuries, including in Descartes’ 17th century Meditations. Even today, philosophers and academics struggle to define it, and there is enough published debate and devil’s-advocate arguments for reference to make that clear. Most can agree, however, upon the basic components of a conscious mind, and are interested in learning more about the functions of the consciousness, and especially, its evolutionary purpose. There are what are called the “easy” and “hard” problems of consciousness. The “easy” problems being those related to neurological and other physical functions of consciousness, and the “hard” problem referring to whether or not it’s even possible to study consciousness, especially its potential subjective components, from the perspective of a conscious mind. While many methodologies have been applied in the pursuit of the fundamental truths of consciousness, most have only led to further questions, and very few definite answers. Today many philosophers still question whether or not consciousness can be studied objectively, and in recent years, there have been some promising advancements in computer science, neuroscience, and social intelligence that might help us respond, “It is.”
Understandings of Consciousness
In his Meditations (1641), Descartes pondered consciousness with such ideas as, “my essence consists solely in the fact that I am a thinking thing,” and that there was a “distinction between the modes of a thing and the thing itself” (p. 168). However, he famously concluded that when it comes to the “mind-body problem,” there isn’t one. Simply put, consciousness and physical self are measured in different ways, i.e.: consciousness does not have linear dimensions, and is not a tangible object or group of objects, and that this does not prevent consciousness from having the potential to act on the body, and vice versa. With Descartes’ introduction of the “mind-body problem”, came the thousands of rebuttals and counterclaims that would unfold into 21st century philosophy.
Many philosophers still refute Descartes’ claims that consciousness and body can be of two separate natures, coexisting with each other in complicated ways. A commonly accepted understanding of the consciousness today is that it does, in fact, conform to all currently understood laws of physics, but that the physical laws are still incomplete. Physicalists, neuroscientists, and even many cognitive scientists accept that there are traceable, physical and biological processes in the brain that lead to the experience of consciousness, but that they are not all currently understood.
There are several commonly accepted associations of consciousness upon which most of us base our understandings of self and species. These include that consciousness occurs in conjunction with alertness and awareness, in a waking state. This means that there is reason to believe those that are sleeping, dead, or comatose most likely do not possess consciousness, or the same level of consciousness as a person who is healthy and awake. It also excludes non-living organisms, the natural Earth (like rocks and water) and the philosophical “zombie.” Further, “consciousness” is often used to refer to the “self-aware,” and is associated with a linear memory of the self. This is where the divergence between those that believe in other conscious species, and those do not, happens. From there, there is some disagreement about whether or not a subjective experience, unique to the self, is a requirement, or even a by-product, of consciousness. Thomas Nagel describes this theory in his “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” article, saying, “fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism- something it is like for the organism. We may call this the subjective character of experience” (p. 434).
In “What is Consciousness,” philosopher David Armstrong describes three distinct types of consciousness, which are also accepted by many as a basis for understanding consciousness today. He used the image of a switched-off computer to describe “minimal consciousness,” stating that even the lowest levels of mental activity signal consciousness of some kind (p. 58). He then describes “perceptual consciousness,” which refers to the “consciousness of what is currently going on in one's environment and in one's body,” or awareness of the sensations of existence (p. 58). “Introspective consciousness,” a more sophisticated order of consciousness, is the perception specifically of the mental existence, or mental states. Armstrong explains, “Introspective consciousness then, is a perception-like awareness of current states and activities in our own mind” (p. 61). Beyond Armstrong’s theories, other questions to consider are in whether consciousness is experienced in dream sleep, and even further, what other types of consciousness might there be? When assessing whether or not other species might also experience consciousness, are we excluding the possibility with the current parameters used to understand it?
Is Studying Consciousness Even Possible?
With so much uncertainty surrounding the nature of consciousness, and our inability to explain how a potentially immaterial basis of “self” interacts with the body in a physical universe, the introduction of subjectivity in the human experience only complicates philosophical theory further. Given the fact that we are all living our lives in this paradoxical state of existence, can we, as introspective, conscious beings, even reflect on and study consciousness in an objective or scientific way?
The answer to that is unclear, but philosophers have approached this issue with different methodologies, basing their experiments on the resolution that some uncertainties must be accepted as truth, in order for philosophy of the mind to have any ground to stand on. Some experiments have rooted themselves in data pulled from self-reporting or introspection and recorded observation. Two major issues arise from these methods. They include the possibility of large variations in the subjective experience of consciousness, and in inadequacies of language. Understanding the concepts and experiences of introspection and perception are difficult to begin with, let alone asking subjects to then articulate those experiences with precise, objective language, where certain aspects and sensations of the experience are yet to be defined. For this reason, there is considerable hesitation in employing these methods alone to better understand consciousness. Modern science has approached it from both neuroscience and cognitive science standpoints, but falls short of unifying the characteristics of consciousness with the laws of physics in any functional way. Those that accept the theories of Functionalism in explaining the mind can apply “sensory inputs and behavioral outputs” to attempt to study consciousness, but still theories rest unresolved, producing as many solutions as they do further questions. (Block, 78). Chalmers took the position that the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness was unsolvable, because of the “explanatory gap,” a gap described by philosopher John Levine between “physical processes and consciousness.” Chalmers’ assertion was that “specifying how experience depends on underlying physical processes” was the “bridge that will cross the explanatory gap,” and that until that is solved, the hard problem would remain (Chalmers, 3).
Another philosopher, Frank Jackson, posed a thought experiment called “What Mary Doesn’t Know.” In this experiment, a person (Mary), who was fully and completely educated on the topics of existence, physics, the mind, and every other topic in the known universe, lived in a black and white room. From that room she was never able to experience the human perception of color, despite reading about it and understanding the biological and physiological processes behind the experience. Upon exiting, she perceived color for the first time. Jackson argued that Mary then had a subjective experience of seeing color that was unique to her, as he claimed we all would, and that therefore, she learned something. She learned what the human experience of seeing the color red felt like. Because she learned something, this could prove that there is a subjective human experience in consciousness, apart from anything that can be taught of it. Jackson later rejected his own theory of the subjective experience and applied reductionist theories to understanding consciousness as a function derived purely from physical processes in the brain.
Looking Ahead at Consciousness.
Despite Jackson’s retraction of his theory about the subjective experience and knowledge in “What Mary Doesn’t Know,” his thought experiment was important. It laid the foundations for other philosophers and deep thinkers to explore possibilities and other types of thought webs regarding consciousness and the hard problem. Jackson’s argument about subjectivity in human experience is still a popular theory, and even if it were not, it proved instrumental in the establishment of newer, well-developed theories of consciousness. For this reason, thought experiments like his should continue, if for no other purpose than inspiration, and a model of what isn’t working. Philosophers designing future thought experiments can model them after the successes, and attempt to avoid the “failures” of Jackson’s original argument. But beyond better development in thought experimentation, what other avenues of approach can we use to study consciousness, while acknowledging the hard problem?
Advancements in both modern science and society have already begun to open doors for us in solving our most fundamental questions of consciousness. The first comes from the recent recognition of exclusionary practice and bias in medical research, and in science in general. As the global population becomes more diverse, inclusive, tolerant and accepting of different cultures, races, genders, abilities and beliefs, we include greater variety in the populations of people we include in studies of the mind. These types of variations, and importantly, the inclusion of subjects who can self-report in different languages, multiple languages, or through complex, intersectional lenses might reveal information to researchers that had previously been missed. Our recent increased awareness of bias in science and society can help prevent us from policing the self-reports of subjects, regardless their gender, race, socioeconomic background, or level of formal education, allowing more accurate data reporting. Advances in neuroscience can, and should, be paired and overlap with technological advancements and further understanding of cognitive science and sociology, and each of our subjective experiences. As we become more aware of ourselves and the realities of our global environment, we might reframe the ways in which we measure and understand the consciousness of other species, and therefore our own. In the same way Descartes recognized that the differences between the nature of consciousness and the physical self did not eliminate the possibility of coexistence between the two, there is potential to believe that the perceived lack of self-awareness among other organisms does not imply there is none. Redefining the ways we understand even more fundamental concepts, like self-awareness, introspection, and even thought, might be necessary in uncovering the truths about consciousness. Another promising avenue of approach to understanding the hard problem could be in tasking artificial intelligence and its deep-learning model with sorting through all of the data we collect going forward, in order to approach consciousness from the “perspective” of an unconscious (or at least, less conscious) being. Eliminating the subjective experience, or possibility of one, for the data processor of an experiment might facilitate a more objective realization of consciousness. For example, allowing an A.I. examiner to study the behavioral outputs, including non-verbal cues, physiological processes, language choices, brainwaves, and cognitive function of a subject, without having to be concerned with the subjective perception of that data.
What Can we Conclude About Consciousness
Philosophy of the mind is a complex and often frustrating contortion of thought that may never be fully understood. But whether or not the mind-body problem is ever solved, whether we ever complete the physical laws of the universe, and whether we, as a society, can accept the truths about our identity is not a question of possibility. It is simply a question of the rate at which we learn, versus the rate at which we self-destruct. Like everything in science, infallible answers to these meta mysteries do exist. The uncertainty lies in whether or not we can separate ourselves from assumptions in perception and inherent biases about what consciousness might mean, and whether or not we can separate ourselves from the inherent urge to rank our species above all others, in any study of the mind, intelligence, cognitive function, or awareness. While thousands of philosophers have tried to work through the hard problem of consciousness, each has inspired a new direction of inquiry or “what if” counter-scenario. The solution of this problem may require the complete reconsideration of fundamental theories of the mind, and of consciousness itself. It may even require that we outsource the process of understanding consciousness to an entity that cannot possess it. In any case, it is one of the most intriguing and important endeavors in modern philosophy that the human race will ever take on, and above all, we should never stop learning about who we are, and the ways in which we interact with both the tangible and intangible world.
Armstrong, D. M. (1981). What is consciousness? In John Heil (ed.), The Nature of Mind. Cornell University Press.
Borchert, D. M. (1996). What is Functionalism? Macmillan.
Block, N. (1996). What is Functionalism? The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Supplement
Chalmers, D. (1995). The Puzzle of Conscious Experience. Scientific American, 273, 80-6.
Jackson, F. (1986). What Mary Didn’t Know. Journal of Philosophy, 83, 291-295.
Nagel, T. (1974). What Is It Like to Be a Bat? The Philosophical Review, 83 (4), 435–450. doi:10.2307/2183914