What is Consciousness?

Many authors have said that precisely defining consciousness is impossible, and they may well be right. But as I begin posting entries on this blog I should indicate what I mean by human consciousness. As a rough overview, I suggest that typical human conscious experiences have the following five characteristics.

1. Our experiences are available for use by the mind’s master control centers. That’s why consciousness is sometimes called a global workspace. During our waking hours we deal with all sorts of challenges, like managing to walk down the street without tumbling heels-over-head on a banana peel. To survive these challenges, our perceptions must be available to the mental mechanisms that form beliefs, think, feel emotions, make decisions, and instigate actions. If you are wrapped in a warm embrace, for example, you would typically believe you’re in an embrace, have thoughts about it, respond emotionally, make choices, (keep hugging, or disengage?), and use the experience to guide your actions.

2. You are one who has your experiences. I can’t tune in to what’s in your head the way you can. (Some would disagree with this claim, but I think it’s true.) So for one of your mental events to be conscious it must be conscious to you as an experiencing self.

But what is a self? Answering that question is about as hard as defining consciousness. What’s important for our purposes is that some part of us registers, enjoys, and suffers our own experiences. We do not yet have a clear and agreed-upon understanding of this experiencer. It may be a single brain system or a team of systems working together. The exact nature of this system or systems is not crucial for our purposes.

One big difference between persons and non-conscious things such as rocks is that something within us “gets” our experiences. Suppose we figured out that some specific pattern of brain activity is absolutely identical to the way you feel when someone tickles your feet. Even if we managed to completely and precisely transplant that neural activity pattern into the middle of a boulder, and keep it alive and functioning, the rock would not feel any urge to giggle. Why? Because nothing in the rock is equipped to experience the ticklish sensation. The sensation just sits there, unknown and unappreciated.

3. Experiences are typically remembered, at least briefly. (Experts disagree about whether all details of experience are held in short-term memory.)

4. Under normal circumstances at least some aspects of an experience are reportable, although our reports are often vague. One can say, “I saw that tree blowing in the wind,” without being able to specify which leaves and branches appeared to be jiggling.

It is quite remarkable that through some obscure mental mechanism we can speak about our own states of mind. If I think about what to eat for dinner or I feel a sharp twinge in my toe, I may find myself reporting these inner states in comprehensible English. We have hardly a clue how that happens.

5. Some of our experiences, especially physical sensations and sensory perceptions, seem “present.” Philosophers find it especially difficult to explain how brain activities could generate a sense of presence, so I’ll consider this point in more detail later.

What do you think of this list? Do these items roughly indicate what scholars mean when they speak of introspectable experiences and conscious phenomena? Would you add or delete items? I welcome your comments.

Roger Christan Schriner

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