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What would happen if I (my body) suddenly lost consciousness? Let's say a freak accident caused the part of my brain responsible for connecting/creating/hallucinating my "being", my consciousness, to just suddenly stop working. I don't mean this in the sense of sleep or death, but rather loss of consciousness while the rest of my brain remains completely, autonomously, functioning.

My understanding is that free will is not entirely real; it is not my consciousness that drives decision-making. I'm also working under the assumption that it's possible to remove consciousness from a brain without damaging it beyond function, which is questionable. Whether or not consciousness is Boolean is far from the scope of this question (and I'm a bit scared to even think about it!)

Obviously my decision-making skills and reasoning are capable of realizing that I am conscious now (you'll kind of just have to trust me on this one); I can pretty definitively say with complete certainty that I am currently conscious, and the fact I'm typing it out means that my brain also understands that (it's not just some "ethereal thought-bubble"). So does it goes to assume that it could also realize when it's not conscious? Would it be scared? I think that I, personally, would be scared. Would my brain share the same sentiment? Me and my brain agree on everything, so it seems it would be scared.

Would anything actually change, or would my brain falsely believe it is still conscious? Could it, like, walk up to someone and say "hey uhhhh I think I lost my consciousness"? Would it just try to carry on as it was before? Could it be capable of art, or empathy? Could it put its hand on a hot stovetop because there's no pain? Would it feel lonely without "me"?

I'm not sure if there are perfect or objective answers to these questions, but I'm interested to see what you all think! I'm definitely not a minority when I say that the nature of consciousness is deeply interesting. The topic of consciousness has been done to death on this forum, I'm sure, but I hope this question provides a nice spin!

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    What Would Happen if I suddenly lost Consciousness?... Happens every day when you sleep ain't it?
    – Rushi
    Feb 6 at 5:57
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    Your semantic content addressable memory can work without consciousness/awareness? Feb 6 at 6:16
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    Does this answer your question? Can a Philosophical Zombie realize that itself has no Qualia?
    – Conifold
    Feb 6 at 6:43
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    I think that consciousness, whatever it may be, is too complex and important for you to function at all without. It would be like, "what if an airplane lost its pilot?" Well, airplanes can hold courses with some directional changes, and even land a plane in some cases. But who would tell it the course or the runway? Keep dreaming of strong AI :-)
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 6 at 12:51
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    Whether free will does or doesn't exist, the bit in our brains that thinks "I'm me" definitely does something (probably high level planning and coordination). Evolution wouldn't form a structure without utility Feb 6 at 22:58

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This is an interesting question: the philosophical term for what you describe is called a 'philosophical zombie' or p-zombie for short. This concept lies at the core of a debate between the dualists and monists; dualists say that it is impossible to prove that any other being then yourself is conscious, because every other being could in theory be the p-zombie that you describe. Monists believe that consciousness is a materialistic property of brains, and as such, can be proven to exist in others.

The answer to the question "what would it be like to be a zombie?" is obviously: it wouldn't be 'like' anything, similar to a rock or a piece of metal. In a materialistic view at least, the body wouldn't act any differently.

It's impossible to say for sure, but there have been some very interesting medical cases that your question reminds me of. Most notably, there was a man with no short-term memory. He would spend every minute of every day writing in his journal: "I am now fully awake. I am now fully awake." If you asked him who wrote the previous sentence, he'd say that it was him, but in an unconscious state. This is the closest thing to a P-zombie that I can think of.

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    The well known psychiatric patient "HM" was unable to form new long term memories, so yes, it was like Groundhog Minute for him.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 6 at 11:52
  • "In a materialistic view at least, the body wouldn't act any differently" - Under which materialist view? Under reductive materialism, you'd act differently without consciousness. Under eliminative materialism, you'd act differently (at least without whatever we call consciousness). Under functionalism, you'd act differently. The main view I can think of where you wouldn't act differently is epiphenomenalism, but I don't know if that can even be called materialism, and it's certainly a dualist view (not a monist view).
    – NotThatGuy
    Feb 6 at 19:11
  • If I'm being pedantic, monists wouldn't say consciousness can be "proven" to exist in others, because for one thing, science doesn't "prove", it disproves and verifies. We can reasonably conclude that others are conscious based on physical similarity and behavioural similarity. Even dualists would have a hard time arguing that isn't the reason why they think others are conscious (if they think others are conscious, that is). Dualists also tend to accept that brain activity corresponds to mental states, monists just don't assert that there's a concrete line separating the two.
    – NotThatGuy
    Feb 6 at 19:24
  • @NotThatGuy You're right, instead of 'materialistic' I meant 'deterministic'
    – Jumboman
    Feb 8 at 19:30
  • @Jumboman Determinism is compatible with all the materialist views I mentioned, so I think my objection would still apply. If your consciousness is deterministic, that doesn't mean you'd act the same if it were removed (similar to how a computer's components may behave deterministically, but if you remove some components, your computer wouldn't behave the same).
    – NotThatGuy
    Feb 8 at 20:48
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Within physicalist monism, there are various views:

Reductive materialism says that consciousness corresponds to physical events in the brain. So for your consciousness to "stop working", you'd lose much of your brain function, and much of your ability to function in the world.

An eliminative materialist might say the thing we call "consciousness" doesn't exist at all (and anything that may be there is merely a result of physical events in the brain... which one might argue is a semantic disagreement with reductivists).

A functionalist might say that consciousness is merely a sum of mental states that are constituted solely by their functional role. So as long as your brain continues to perform the same function, your consciousness necessarily remains. Your brain would need to be rendered largely useless for your consciousness to "stop working".


There are also a bunch of dualist views, which are unified in saying roughly that your consciousness is separate from what's happening in your brain. This would include roughly every religion that speaks of "souls".

Most would probably say that you wouldn't continue to function as is if your consciousness suddenly stops working, since your consciousness is the thing making decisions. Although they may (or may not) also say that it could be possible for something to look and act like you and not be conscious.

Others, in particular epiphenomenalism, say that consciousness is dependent on physical brain processes, but don't influence them, so your consciousness can stop working while you continue to function as normal.


What's commonly asked is "can something be physically identical to me, and act the same as me, and not be conscious", and that's the thought experiment of philosophical zombies. Although phrasing it as "what if my consciousness suddenly stops working" is an interesting variant, because it is functionally the same question, but now it's much more clear that you can't agree that physically-identical zombies are possible unless you agree that your consciousness doesn't actually influence anything you do.

In another answer, I talk more about philosophical zombies, and I argue that reductive materialism seem to be the best supported by empirical science and seem most reasonable in the context of evolution.

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  • I wish they would figure out what the right answer is.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 7 at 0:28
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What happens at a sudden loss of consciousness is a medical, notably neurological question. That part of our brain which must be working for being conscious is the thalamus, see Thalamus:

Thalamic nuclei have strong reciprocal connections with the cerebral cortex, forming thalamo-cortico-thalamic circuits that are believed to be involved with consciousness,

Loss of consciousness can be temporarily or permanent. For a deep form see Coma.

To back-up your thoughts, a good introduction from the viewpoint of neuroscience could be Christof Koch Consciousness.

Added. From a clinical point of view there are many case reports how patients feels when suffering from mental disturbances due to brain lesions, e.g., see Oliver Sacks.

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    The points raised in this answer concern consciousness in the medical sense — the external behaviours and effects which we consider as indicators of of consciousness. But the question is asking about consciousness in the philosophical sense — the internal experience of consciousness, as distinguished from those external effects — which is quite different. Feb 6 at 15:30
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    From what you write, especially “I do not expect that philosophy provides further insight…”, it sounds like you’re dismissing this major field (philosophy of mind) out of hand, without even knowing what kind of questions it considers. As usual when someone does that, it doesn’t mean you’re radically exposing the emperor’s nakedness — it means you’re restating some standard ideas of the topic, in their simplest form, without engaging with any conflicting arguments, or even most arguments for your position. [cont’d] Feb 6 at 18:51
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    [cont’d] The idea there’s nothing more to consciousness beyond its observable effects (including self-reported introspection) is a well-established and respectable position (physicalism), but it’s far from consensus. Any answer to OP’s question should at the very least show awareness of other positions that have been argued, and of the ideas introduced to clarify the topic (e.g. the thought-experiment of P-zombies mentioned in Jumboman’s answer). Feb 6 at 18:52
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    @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine I'm so tired of all this debate, can't someone just sort it out? We figured out which side of the road to drive on a long time ago.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 6 at 19:00
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    @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine My answer is intended as a warning: Back-up further philosophical reasoning about conscious perceptions with neuroscience (the neural correlates of consciousness) and with clinical reports (how conscious deficiencies feel like). Be careful when arguing on a purely philosophical basis.
    – Jo Wehler
    Feb 6 at 19:45
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I believe that I have some insight on this because I can see where this is coming from because I have experienced something similar I'm not sure if it is exactly as the question describes but what happened to me was that I passed out I had fallen and hit my head and I was unconscious I could see anything and I had no idea what was going on but from testament from my family I fell then I had gotten back up they sat me down then I had woken up which shows that the ability to be unconscious and have your body move remotely without my input is feasible. I know this isn't to the scale of what the question states but I think that it still relies on the same fundamental idea of how your body could more or be in control without you.

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    'blackouts' from drinking alcohol are similar. "Oh, you were at the party all evening, don't you remember what you said and did?" Scary.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 6 at 19:02
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You will have exactly this experience when going under general anesthesia before surgery. In that instant the external world vanishes and your experience of self vanishes too, and time does not exist. The next millisecond later the world suddenly and seamlessly comes back and you are in the recovery room being talked to by the nurses, with absolutely no sensation of the passage of time or memory of what just happened.

I was in that same state for almost 7 hours during my cancer surgery, during which I as a personality inhabiting a body did not exist.

Dying is the same except you never come back.

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    I always wonder when I see this kind of confidence regarding your mental state under anesthesia, how do you know you did not exist during that time? Really, there are only two things you know about your mental state under anesthesia. The first is that you make no outward show of consciousness. The second is that you don't remember anything that happened during that time. But the same is true for most of the dreams I've had in my life, as well as (with regards to the second bit at least) pretty much my entire life before about 4 or 5, and I
    – Jeremiah
    Feb 6 at 21:46
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    don't think I only experienced the dreams I remember or that I became conscious in kindergarten. How do you know that you didn't experience some sort of fuzzy nothing state while you were under that you just can't hold onto when you wake up?
    – Jeremiah
    Feb 6 at 21:46
  • There are also surgery / test situations where you don't recall afterwards but you were compliant with verbal instructions, if not exactly brilliant. Colonoscopy and heart cath and some other things. So, sometimes there must be some sort of consciousness without memory formation. But actual anesthesia is different, the lights are off and no one's home.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 7 at 0:14
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    @ScottRowe Do check your metaphors: The lights can be off with owner at home — typically when he's asleep. Or do you claim to nonexist every night?
    – Rushi
    Feb 7 at 16:07
  • @Jeremiah, remember that when knocked out, I had no experience at all of time. Feb 7 at 19:15
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Oh, this is relatively straightforward to answer, at least from an experiential perspective - everybody can check these things themselves, and nobody seems to have much more to say on it, really, at least nothing that would convince people beyond general opinion-building or belief-systems.

Preliminary:

Obviously my decision-making skills and reasoning are capable of realizing that I am conscious now (you'll kind of just have to trust me on this one)

Actually I do not need to trust you on that. After all, I am perfectly capable of realizing that I am conscious now, but what do I care about some text that appeared on my screen? By all that I know, all I ever see and hear is just some hallucination injected into my brain, floating in a vat, and I am the only conscious thing that exists in the whole wide world.

Just kidding.

On to your main points.

What would happen if I suddenly lost consciousness?

This depends on whether you eventually regain consciousness.

If you lose consciousness forever, then from your perspective, nothing happens. You just stop. You likely are familiar with the experience of a deep, dreamless, unbroken sleep. If your brain works like mine, then that time is not part of your reality. It's simply not happening. It is exactly like if you lost consciousness during that time, since that is quite literally what it is.

When sleeping, it is clear that what not happens is our consciousness sitting around in blackness, waiting for senses to awaken again. We can imagine this nightmarish scenario (e.g., a victim of war who had all their senses shot away, nerves cut so they get literally zero sensual input; but the consciousness still being around and everything else keeps working). This is not our nightly experience.

An even more intense situation would be if you are in a coma, let's say an induced one, maybe for a planned OP. If everything goes as intended, then you are gone from one second to the other, and re-appear some (sometimes significantly long) time later.

There are unplanned, traumatic comas which are the same. For example, I had a car accident with sudden deceleration once, and bystanders tell me that I sat slumped behind the wheel for 10 minutes, and then just opened my eyes and got out of the car. From my perspective, i.e. from my consciousness'es perspective, I had the crash (squealing tires, big bang) and immediately opened the door to get out. People could have told me anything, there was no experience whatsoever to believe or disbelieve them about it.

Obviously someone might argue that just because we do not remember anything, that does not mean that consciousness was really inoperative at that time. That may be as it will, there is (almost by definition) no way for us to know any useful answer to that. A glimpse into this are dreams - often we are aware that we have dreamed vividly, but at the same time we cannot recall a single detail. Sometimes we dream and are able to remember. Sometimes we dream and are also consciousness about it (or at least we think so in hindsight, who knows). This could imply that consciousness can probably work on a scale between 0-100% (or, again, it could mean that this is not the case, but that memory is just borked - we cannot know, really).

assumption that it's possible to remove consciousness from a brain without damaging it beyond function, which is questionable

I have no reason to think that's questionable. Granting that we don't even know (in the least) what "consciousness" even is, and that there a great many entities on this planet which are alive but don't show particular signs of having "it" (whatever it is), it seems very plausible to me that a brain could work just fine without consciousness.

The dead giveaway here is that even when we meditate for years, there is never a point where we are conscious about how our brain works internally. We get immense insight into our mind (i.e., things like how thoughts, emotions, senses and so on and forth "feel"; how thoughts pop up on their own; how it is impossible to suppress thoughts consciously; and many other wild and fascinating effects), but not in the low-level working of the brain. We do not ever feel individual synapses firing. If we had no brain surgeons, we would never have spontaneously "felt" that our brain is made up of quite separate areas with sometimes quite distinct functions. So it seems easy for me to assume that the brain could just function fine without consciousness, as long as my body is being fed and watered sufficiently.

My understanding is that free will is not entirely real; it is not my consciousness that drives decision-making.

The jury is still out on all that, but I don't see how the one has anything to do with the other. Consciousness works just fine with (the illusion of) free will (i.e., there are many people who are absolutely sure of free will). But it also works perfectly for people who do not believe in free will (i.e., those that do not believe in free will). Like with so many other aspects of the matter, we have not found a way or argument to decide, while at the same time most people seem to have quite fixed opinions on it.

So does it goes to assume that it could also realize when it's not conscious? Would it be scared? I think that I, personally, would be scared. Would my brain share the same sentiment? Me and my brain agree on everything, so it seems it would be scared.

The working theory (at least as far as I'm concerned) is that consciousness is the only thing within the brain that's "noticing" anything at all - i.e., all senses, but also thoughts, feelings, emotions like being scared and such.

On the other hand, when people experience fear, this is definitely not just some weird thing going on in consciousness, but there are definitely chemical reactions to witness in the brain. We can also assume that fear is something that developed quite early in our predecessors, long before consciousness. That's why it is so hard for people to "handle" fear - our brain sometimes runs away with it, and we cannot get rid of it just by thinking real hard, or just by deciding that we don't want it (i.e., panic attacks, anxiety etc.).

So sure - I can imagine that a consciouss-free brain can still "run the fear protocol" based on whatever physical-chemical-audio-based input it receives. But if your consciousness were off, there would be nothing to take note of it. A doctor could measure it with electrodes, but they would not feel it either.

would my brain falsely believe it is still conscious?

There is no reason to believe that there is anything in your brain that can believe anything when you're not conscious. Obviously all input which your consciousness adds to whatever processes are going on will be gone, but this is totally normal for your brain - it happens every night when you sleep. Depending on how consciousness is implemented on the wetware - let's just assume it is wired in some significant part of your synapses - over time those connections may atrophy like muscles, but that would is obviously total speculation (just a thought experiment, nobody has the slightest idea), but it seems quite unlikely that your brain would notice.

Could it put its hand on a hot stovetop because there's no pain?

Sure, in a way. Sleep walking is a real thing. We can imagine that your consciousness is gone for good, but your body basically sleep walks. Actual, real sleep walkers do really bad things in practice (i.e., bad accidents can and certainly do happen).

But the pain would, if nothing except consciousness changes, still bring a reaction. Pain is, like fear, a very low-level thing that has been there long before consciousness arose. Even the smallest amoebae know "pain" of a sort - probably not that there is any "feeling" going on, but there is some injury-response built in. So in your case, your unconscious body could walk up to a hot stove, could accidently/randomly put its hand there, and then the usual pain response, which works in milliseconds and very much faster than you can realize, will pull it straight back. There would be nothing in your brain that then notes the pain. The pain would just be (in the form of electrochemical processes going on).

Oh, famously you can cut off a chicken's head, and it will walk around for some while. There you have it, your very literal p-zombie in action. (Though maybe not that useful, who knows how conscious chickens are with the head still attached...)

Finally, keep in mind that our body does an awful lot of things totally on its own, with not the tiniest bit of consciousness involved. All workings inside your cells, all quick reactions, your heart beat, the complete digestive and temperature regulation and a myriad of other processes big and small work all the time without you being conscious of them. And even when the scientists make you believe in them without the slightest doubt, your consciousness is not able to be aware of them, or influence them, try as it might.

Would it feel lonely without "me"?

Consciousness is defined as that thing that feels everything there is to feel, and to take notice of things. As far as we know, there is nothing else that "feels" anything. Lots of "sensors" and processes and automatic systems, but nothing else. There is nothing that is conscious about consciousness except consciousness itself. When consciousness is gone, there is nothing left that can do these things.

Oh and ... damn ... you used the word "me". This is just a huge further can of worms. There is a variant of insight meditation where you try to find the place inside your mind that is "me". Have fun spending a great long time looking.

The topic of consciousness has been done to death on this forum, I'm sure, but I hope this question provides a nice spin!

Actually, since the time I've been reading here, consciousness has not be brought up that often; I feel we talk more about religion these days. It is a nice spin to argue about it. It is also slightly futile since we know nothing about all of that. Nobody knows what consciousness is, even in the tiniest bit. Still, great fun, thanks!

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To join the other anecdotes I've had a couple of unusual experiences.

The first of them I once went to sleep instantly. I blinked and like a switch night turned to day and the curtains were open. A moment earlier I was tired (but not excessively) and I felt refreshed like I'd had a night of good sleep which I must have had.

The other experience I became conscious halfway through a run, I started the run conscious and I remember the first few kilometers, but at some-point like drifting off to sleep my consciousness faded out, until my next thought was shock at being at a different place and time at halfway point with no memory of the previous 10 minutes. My watch, position and ache in the legs suggested I must have been running the route as normal avoiding obstacles, making the correct turnings and other runners.

The feeling before and after the blank period felt meditative that could have been driven by the rhythm of running, having used an EEG device I can say that meditative feeling is the same as the state in which there are higher alpha-wave and lower higher frequency waves. I've also experience that feeling called "flow" when painting or lost in a good video game, which is similar in the altered perception of time passage, but unlike the run there's no missing memories.

So unless you regained consciousness it's probable you'd never experience or realise the lose of it, or possible that realization was the shock that lead to it's restoration. Whether that's even possible to maintain or certain thoughts/action require consciousness I don't know.

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  • I can corroborate your 1 from childhood experiences — a fully conscious blink... and night switched to day
    – Rushi
    Feb 7 at 17:15
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It's long been know in medicine what would happen with you in such case. Such kind of state of a person in medicine is called Vegetative state (which is a disorder of consciousness), where person is able partially respond to some stimuli, for example like blinking eyes, while feeding, etc. It happens for example after serious brain injuries, body inability to fully recover from a coma state, that's why it's called "post-coma unresponsiveness".

Why it's called "vegetative" ? Roots of this word lie in the term vegetable, mid-15c., "non-animal life". This is a very awful state, I do not wish it to anybody, even when person experiencing it may not comprehend what's going on with itself.

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I can provide the discussion with a data point, an anecdote of my experience of being unconscious for possibly many minutes, while still functioning fully in my character, in a testing environment.

I had the feeling of waking up partially one morning, knowing that it was a work day, but wanting to spend a few more minutes in bed. I explored the warm sheets with my toe, to focus on enjoying basking in bed in this little bit of extra stolen time.

I then had the feeling that the bed had tilted, and then just a fraction of a second later, tilted the other way. I was suddenly alarmed, wondering if an earthquake had struck, or my bed had otherwise collapsed, or perhaps a chimney or some other debris had crashed through the ceiling onto it. I felt that my life might depend on getting my eyes open fast, to assess the situation.

I wasn't in bed. I was on my racing bicycle, 4 miles into a 13 mile morning commute into work. I had just entered a roundabout, and was pedalling hard to slot into a gap in the entering traffic, the speed difference between cars and bikes making this a potentially dangerous maneuver. I was out of the saddle, pulling up on my toestraps as well for more acceleration. But this was in character, I go fast and I go for it. I was in a perfect position on the road.

I held it together, helped by the fact that was already doing exactly what I normally do when conscious. Once off the roundabout, I stopped, and spent the next 10 minutes trying to figure out what was real, and trying unsuccessfully to come up with some sort of test that would tell me unequivocally, while working several times through my entire vocabulary of profanities.

I have no idea how long I was active but unconscious for. Was it the entire time from sleep in bed, during which I got up and dressed, had breakfast, and left for work? Or did I lose conscious awareness only seconds or minutes before on the journey? If the latter, I recalled no memory of getting up that morning.

It's not uncommon for drivers to report arriving somewhere, with no conscious recollection of making the journey. What surprised me was the concreteness of the hallucination of being in bed, whilst apparently in those same moments approaching the roundabout, planning my speed and trajectory to fit in with the traffic. When you corner a bike, you have to lean, and I suspect the 'bed tilting' was me leaning the bike over as I navigated the entry into the roundabout.

I've never had a similar experience. It marked a watershed in how I regarded my, and everybody else's, self-reported experiences. I'm happy that people who report alien abduction for instance may be honestly reporting what they believe, given that I know how strongly consciousness can be decoupled from activity. I wasn't doing something tame like sleep-walking, wandering around in a nice safe house for instance, I was spending athletic amounts of energy, while planning and executing a high risk maneuver.

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There are four main sets of answers you will get from philosophers.

From multiple directions, you will be told there will be no difference for your body or behavior. Among the reductive materialists, the eliminative materialists (Churchlands), and Delusionists (Dennett, Frankish) will say this. One-way interactive dualists (epiphenomenalists) will say the same (Kim). Parallelist dualists and pan-psychists will say this as well (Chalmers, Goff). All of the above hold that philosophical zombies are possible.

You will also be told that consciousness cannot be lost, as a logical necessity, by Identity theorists, whether they hold by Identity theory with neurons, or with algorithms, or with emergence identity theories.

Dualists hold that, for consciousness to be lost by a person, one would have to replace its functions with some mechanical device (a surgically enhanced zombie would be the only kind possible), or else you would not be able to do anything. This would be for both spiritual (Eccles) and emergent (Popper) dualists.

Idealists hold that agency is not possible without consciousness, and it is consciousness that creates brain/mind, so your question makes no sense.

Of these four options, the majority of philosophers of mind hold by variants of Identity Theory, with most of them today being emergent identity theorists. The key for this thinking is that consciousness is clearly tuned by evolution, hence it must be causal.

Here is an example of two emergent/functional Identity Theorists discussing the details of what the worldview of emergence plus top-down causation involves (in episode 2), along with detailed discussion of the functions consciousness does for us (lots of episodes, but most content in episodes 11 and 12). https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/theory-knowledge/202012/untangling-the-world-knot-consciousness https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLTJe1xFfoxrAIyl5r1dB4La6zzMfUZVyd

The evolved nature of both brains and consciousness makes the first and fourth answers suspect.

The way all our functions are sometimes done unconsciously -- supports the dualist models over the identity models. The way consciousness seems to be influenced by drugs and injury, supports the identity models over the dualist ones.

William James and Karl Popper articulated a falsifying evolutionary test case against Identity theories that have a property that sometimes the identity functions can be done unconsciously (IE neither logical nor actual identity), that evolutionary variance would lead to unconsciousness for 100% of our functions, that is in my reading, unrefuted, making identity models unpatchable -- while dualist models are patchable.

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