What is Consciousness?

Consciousness is a state of feeling. It is what it feels like to hear a note from a guitar. It is the sound insofar as it is felt by you. It is a myriad of other sights, sounds, touches (and feelings from any other sense). It is all of them felt to be stretched out before you at any given time.

A myriad of feelings implies a point of view, a vantage point from which to feel it. It is required in order for there to be a space so that specific sights or sounds may appear on the left, or above, or one behind the other. Even if something is felt as not localized, there is yet a sort of space implied by something felt as being all around (this is different from vague feelings which are hardly felt, and so difficult to feel at all, let alone gauge where it is at; or else it shows up spatially all the same–i.e. a vague feeling of remorse that aches my gut and eyes, and guides my thoughts). So there are at least two components of consciousness–the felt thing and a point of view.

How does consciousness work? How is it created or generated?

Probably the best way to answer this question from a theoretical standpoint is to first of all answer what things in our vast universe are, in fact, conscious. I will start with supposing that everything is conscious and end with supposing that nothing is conscious. The middle is probably right, in my estimate. I will likely write on these sections individually and at length in future posts.

If Everything is Conscious

On the one hand, if everything is conscious, then consciousness plausibly “works” just for being any old thing. I would also suspect that such conscious things have their particular felt experiences just for coming into direct causal contact with those things that are felt (this would go a long way toward answers about perception). The view that everything is conscious is typically called panpsychism.

Hold fixed the behavior of an object that is conscious, and we might just as well assume that the object’s conscious experience (i.e. how the object itself feels in behaving as it does–or how such behaving feels to the object) is reflective of how it behaves. For example, take a thermostat. When on and set to a certain temperature, a thermostat will, first of all, pick up the temperature of the area, and then, if high, kick on the AC; if low, kick on the heater. If panpsychism is true, then the thermostat is conscious. In what way is it conscious? We may just assume that it is in correspondence with how it behaves: the thermostat feels the temperature of the room, and it feels like keeping that temperature within a certain range, and is inclined to turn on the AC or the heater when things feel “off”. If feeling directly corresponds with causal contact–i.e. If a certain kind of change of mean molecular motion (i.e. an increasing or decreasing of heat) of one thing from contact from another is also productive of one type of feeling which is commonly felt from a heat increase or a decrease, then there is no issue with behavior (usually) corresponding with feeling.

However, there are plausible alternatives to such a picture. One is that there is a causal mechanism that is internal to the thermostat and that produces its consciousness, but itself does not directly, although perhaps incidentally, contact the heat differences that it produces feelings for. This may be in line with how the visual cortex in us does not directly contact light, and yet may be thought to produce our feelings of seeing light.

If so, then one difficulty that emerges is that the feeling does not have to match what is causally contacted. The thermostat need not have the feeling that we associate with heat at all. What a thermostat feels may be entirely unrelated to its behaviour or what it causally contacts. How could this be? This could be so if the internal causal mechanisms of the thermostat are solely what causes the consciousness of the thermostat, and that the feelings so caused are wildly different from those that any person would consider to be related to temperature. The thermostat would be conscious, as everything is under panpsychism, but it may have feelings that people usually have for blaring trumpets. If what an object feels is not disconnected from how it behaves or what it comes into contact with after all, then we would need an explanation for why this is, since it is difficult to see how the heat itself can have any causal influence on what the feeling is in particular, particularly when the heat’s directly contacting the thermostat is not what causes the feeling.

If Some Things, Not All, Are Conscious

Let’s now answer the question about which things are conscious differently. Let’s say that not everything is conscious, but some things are. This is likely in line with most of our intuitions that thermostats are not conscious. The first candidate for consciousness is ourselves. And we know that our brains profoundly influence our conscious experiences, through the alterations of our brains through injury or drugs. The eyes may receive light, but a person without a visual cortex will not see it.

So the brain causes consciousness. Is it a sole cause of consciousness? For example, is a visual cortex that is stimulated a certain way, via electrical stimulation as in the Matrix, enough to give us the range of conscious visual experiences we have? Can we just have a pile of adequately electrified visual cortexes, and all of them will be visually-feeling entities? This is a possibility. That is, this could be the way that feelings work–that biological matter so situated causes consciousness. The standard disclaimer here is to note that we just don’t know enough about how the brain works. However, we assume the brain is what accomplishes consciousness all the same. If the brain, or part of it, is solely responsible for that feeling of seeing–shapes, colors, objects–then this was ordained into the causal capacity of the brain from the start. Just as properly situated matches cause fire, so too does a squirmy mass of cells properly situated cause feelings of seeing a red ball just ahead. This would be embedded in the very laws of nature. And we would seem to be entirely lost for an answer as to why one particular chain of cells was deemed to produce the red ball, or the blaring trumpet, or nothing at all.

Anyone who reads up on the consciousness debate would likely be quick to point out a whole side that I’ve neglected so far: invoking artificial intelligence and computer programs to explain consciousness (giving a Computational Theory of consciousness). Isn’t what our brain does in making consciousness just what a computer algorithm or process does in making a program?

The waters become muddied when new terms are introduced without proper definition or understanding of their meanings. Artificial intelligence plausibly amounts to whether or not devices can do for us what we want when we want. A self-driving car is intelligent so long as it stays on the roads and gets to the destination without getting into an accident or running anyone over. We build the car with that goal in mind such that anything less is unintelligent. The car itself is the causal realization of these goals. Yet causal law does not just listen to our goals: if the device fails to be sufficiently intelligent, we need to change the device in some way in order for it to act accordingly. Computers are different from machines of previous centuries for having far more switches confined to a compact area. With an operating system, controlling these tiny switches is accomplished by writing a program. Sensors and lasers and lenses are also used to control these switches, where the program (which itself is just a setting and changing of switches) then engages the gas pedal, steers it a certain way, or presses the brake. None of this is substantially different from how a thermostat raises or lowers the temperature of a room. If a thermostat fails to be conscious, then a self-driving car adds nothing to the mix that would result in its being conscious. It could be conscious all the same, but the reason for its being so must be happenstance–reroll the universe with another big bang, and perhaps the thermostat would rather be conscious, and not the self-driving car. There is no principle to the matter one way or another.

Perhaps the principle is thought to be complexity. A thermostat isn’t complex enough to be conscious, but a self-driving car may be, or it is at least closer to it. Two thoughts make me doubt there’s anything special about complexity in answering what is and what is not conscious. First, any complex process of the sort we’re considering is just an amalgamation of simpler processes. The self-driving car itself has a heating system, for example. That the universe is such that simple causal systems on their own have no consciousness, but that those systems sufficiently grouped together to make a complex one are conscious would be a fact that calls for explanation but has none forthcoming. Why should it be such that groups of simple things create consciousness, where those things by themselves don’t? Second, consider a wooden chair: the causal complexity of a wooden chair as it repels air molecules and reverberates with vibrations from the floor is staggering. Sound vibrations are etched into the wood anew at any given moment. The particles of a chair constantly move and adapt to the environment. And this isn’t even getting into its function when someone sits in it. Yet we don’t consider the chair to be conscious. Why not? The same complexity could be present with the particles of the chair as with the tiny switches of a driverless car, and yet one is to be conscious while the other is not.  Complexity is not the answer, and calling for artificial intelligence or computer programs really adds nothing except tiny switches. The brain causes consciousness, at least in part, and we don’t yet know how it does so.

If Nothing is Conscious 

The final answer to what is conscious in our vast universe is nothing. Daniel Dennett has seemed to hold a view like this, calling consciousness an illusion. Recently (2017), he has said it is a user-illusion, akin to click-and-drag icons. Let me first just say that I am in no way doing full justice to Dennett’s views here. With that said, I am very confused by the analogy, primarily because click-and-drag-icons are in no way illusory. On a mobile device you may, with your finger, touch what you want to “move” and “put” it into a new folder. “Move” and “put” here is in no way suggestive of an illusion. They are perhaps metaphorical: they literally mean that the sequential order of the actual bright boxes on your device that you have to touch changes. Touching the boxes in the correct sequential order will cause what you moved to open (i.e. to appear once again). None of this is illusory, even if the switches on the inside of the device that open and close in order for such sequential sights and touches to work is concealed from view.

The more general response is that consciousness cannot be an illusion, at least under any ordinary understanding of “illusion”. An illusion occurs when things seem to be a certain way, but are in fact not that way. Jupiter appears to go around the Earth, but that is an illusion–it actually goes around the Sun, just in case you were wondering. There appears to be a computer screen in front of me. This may well be an illusion–perhaps I am dreaming and there is no screen in front of me. However, even so, it appears that way to me nonetheless. That’s how we can make sense of illusions at all–that things are not how they seem. Yet, short of consciousness, nothing seems like anything. When the thermostat mistakenly kicks on the heater when it is 90 degrees F. for bad circuitry, it is not for being under the illusion that things are cooler than they really are. If I am under an illusion, it is because things seem to me to be in a way that they are not. Yet, the “seeming to be” is part and parcel of consciousness. To say that it is illusory is to say that it seems to me that “seeming to be” is when it is, in fact, not (since I’m under an illusion). It is a contradiction for such a seeming to indeed be illusory, since there is ostensibly a seeming to be. To conclude this section, if nothing is conscious, then I am nothing.

Final Note (For Now)

To conclude, I consider it to be a given that our brains play a large causal role in consciousness. We still have much to work out of the particulars, philosophically speaking, for how to understand how particular brain states produce for us particular conscious states (more on this forthcoming). In particular, I want to clarify how it can be that an experience matches or corresponds in some way to the objects of experience. Science will inform us of the particular correspondences between brain states and conscious states.


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