What I am trying to ask in particular is how do we know what is conscious and what is not just because something moves, breathes and interacts with the environment doesn't mean it is necessarily conscious take a tree for example it does all those things and even reproduces we consider it to have a life but not consciousness (in the traditional orthodox sense - not ontological). How do I know my fellow humans are conscious, is it because of this sense of empathy(sonder) or is it just because of similarity to one's self (self-realization and consequent realization of similarity) but is that enough to conclude something is conscious? For all you know an automaton with human skin might be similar to me but it doesn't mean that it is conscious, right? Is self-awareness a necessity for consciousness? Can something be self-aware but not conscious? Say if a human is devoid of any and every sensation and activity, can one still be considered conscious?

What about for animals? How about babies, when do we humans start to have consciousness? If consciousness is like a switch then at what age does it turn on but if it is a gradual progression when do we say we are conscious (how do we know this and realize), or have we always been conscious if not then maybe we were never conscious to start with?

With the above swarm of questions being the base, now my follow up will be: Are each of our cells conscious (because it is alive - if life and consciousness are mutual), is every nerve fiber conscious and the amalgamation of the consciousness of each nerve fiber and synaptic connection gives rise to a greater consciousness i.e., our consciousness (the brain's consciousness)? Then if we consider each cell to have some sort of consciousness then maybe other single celled organisms also have consciousness. This makes me think, Is consciousness and life mutually inclusive? Because consider something vague like a virus, it has this sense of duality in regards to its state of life, when outside a host no signs of life but inside it gets to replicate and share information. If we accept that life and consciousness are mutual then does that mean a virus loses and gains consciousness depending on environment or is it the case that it always has consciousness? If that is the case then, do all other non-living things have consciousness? and if that is the case does an atom or building blocks of matter each have their own consciousness? Do space and time also have consciousness? Is everything (i.e., reality) just one big conscience?

Extra: Is existence, life and consciousness necessarily mutually inclusive?

  • See
    – Rushi
    Commented Apr 7 at 8:58
  • @Rushi I see that your arguments are laid out in terms of western versus eastern. Is there a reconciliation of both? Reconciliation of the self/self-realization and consciousness?
    – How why e
    Commented Apr 7 at 9:15
  • I'm not sure how you draw a line between self-realization and (self)-consciousness. Anyways... here's a more expanded version in the same vein
    – Rushi
    Commented Apr 7 at 9:53
  • @Rushi not self consciousness but I meant to say the realization of other consciousness.
    – How why e
    Commented Apr 7 at 9:58
  • O ok: You could call that the dualist view (me←→ other) and the non-dual view (only undifferentiated awareness without otherness)
    – Rushi
    Commented Apr 7 at 10:04

4 Answers 4


Every ambulance man knows how to check whether a person is conscious. And every neuroscientist knows some some mental processes which are necessary to generate consciousness.

The search for the neural correlates of consciousness is a difficult task for neuroscience. But panspychism is no help for the working neuroscientist. A good read is Christof Koch: Consciousness.

From the philosophical viewpoint qualia are the most simple examples of conscious perceptions. If you like to philosophize about consciousness, possibly a good start is to begin withs qualia.

  • 2
    From my understanding a moment of experience is what qualia is although I have a question regarding qualia. Can we consider sleep an experience and therefore determine the instance of non-dream sleep to be a qualia
    – How why e
    Commented Apr 7 at 10:16
  • @Howwhye A non-dream sleep is an unconscious process, hence not a quale.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Apr 7 at 10:20
  • 1
    @Howwhye ...non-dream sleep... Good! V Good!! Non-dream sleep gives each of us the incontrovertible data: I can be happy + I can have no consciousness — simultaneously! Herein lies one of the great mysteries!
    – Rushi
    Commented Apr 7 at 11:00

There are essentially two views of consciousness: objective and subjective.

Something is said to be conscious according to the objective view if it interacts with its environment purposefully.

The problem, then, is that AI machines can do that, if only to a limited extent (but that is only a beginning), and we probably don't want to say that an AI is conscious.

According to the subjective view, consciousness is subjective experience: experience of pain, colours, souvenirs, hunger, anger etc., and experience of the impression that what we perceive is real.

It is for you to decide which seems more plausible.

How do I know my fellow humans are conscious . . . ?

We don't. Consciousness is knowledge of what we are conscious of as we are conscious of it. So we know the impression that we have that we are looking at a tree, but we don't know if there is anything, outside our mind as it were, which is the tree we think we are looking at.

So, while we usually believe that other people are conscious, we don't actually know that they are. Still, if you believe something, you believe that you know it is true. so it doesn't make much difference. The real difference is that we can always be mistaken about that thing being a tree, or about other people being conscious, although that seems very implausible.

Say if a human is devoid of any and every sensation and activity, can one still be considered conscious?

In the subjective view, we are only conscious of our own mind, our own thoughts, our own ideas, our own memory. So, if we have none of that, we are not conscious. This may not be quite true. For example, we might be conscious of our empty mind.

How would that feel? Presumably a bit like darkness, but if there is nothing in your mind, whatever the reason, then you won't even be able to have the idea that you are yourself, of even just remember that you are someone, or even just a human being, or that you are now on planet earth. You wouldn't have any idea. not even of time and place. I don't think we want to call this "consciousness" either.

What about for animals? How about babies, when do we humans start to have consciousness?

According to the subjective view, if you are conscious, you are conscious of the contents of your mind: Animal mind, animal consciousness; baby mind, baby consciousness. Obviously nothing quite like we grown-up humans can enjoy. But the wolf is conscious of whatever impressions the typical wolf mind presumably contains.

Are each of our cells conscious . . . ?

Again, possibly, but if so, conscious of what? And when would a cell tell the tale?

The fact that we can report our subjective experience means that we can make it plausible for others that we are conscious. Cells don't have that luxury, nor do atoms and quarks, presumably. Maybe we can look forward to quantum scientists establishing the first contact with a talkative quark?

Thus, one characteristic of human consciousness is that we can talk about it. According to the subjective view, this is entirely the result of the cognitive capabilities of the human brain: logic, language, memory, self, feelings, empathy, gregariousness etc.

  • 1
    +1 Thank you for taking your time, reading through the monsters of paragraphs I had written and responding. I really appreciate how you answered as many as possible. By far the best answer.
    – How why e
    Commented Apr 8 at 3:03

In Buddhism all living things are sentient beings. Plant sentience is not the same as animal or human consciousness. A conscious human like Sidhartha, the historical Buddha, can form an intention to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. Buddhism is about the intentional states (mental states) of humans.

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, maps consciousness to what is known to an animal or human ego and unconsciousness to what is unknown to an animal or human ego. To decode Freud's description I map ego to my own efforts to govern action in the sensory context and to the patterns of actions of animals and humans in my perceptions; I map consciousness to what I know in this context; and I map the unconscious to what is unknown or mysterious in this context.

Freud says there are memories or knowledge that is latent or recessed and can easily become conscious; and there are memories or knowledge that is repressed or suppressed and cannot easily become conscious. Freud argues that conflicts in the unconscious can impair the conscious ego when making efforts to govern action in the natural and social world. The psychoanalyst helps the patient resolve these unconscious conflicts so the ego can be happier and more effective in the world.

An ego conflict can be seen in the ambivalence of a dog which is eating when company arrives. The dog runs back and forth between the food dish and the company, and it takes a few iterations before the dog decides whether to greet the company or finish eating. Humans often experience alternative plans of action, similar to the dog if it could think "Do I want to eat or do I want to greet the company?" Do I want to have children or not have children, etc.? Freud maps the set of possibilities to a set of impulses to act, where impulses are the unconscious or conscious motivation to act in a possible pattern, and to a power of inhibition in the ego, which gates the impulses. Plants may be sentient but they do not express actions that seem to be rooted in impulses and inhibitions that I experience as part of what Freud calls the ego. The unconscious and conscious ego are therefore associated with the behavior of animals and humans not with plants.

Freud argues that the ego observes the actions of animals and humans during the process of interaction. The ego forms automatic and intentional or deliberate relational memories with other egos. The ego transforms into a more mature (progressive) or less mature (regressive) ego during interactions with the world. Freud invents or discovers a new source of cause of human behavior: the unconscious memories which may aid or cause conflict with the conscious ego.

Medical consciousness is the assumption that a consciousness arises in an animal or human as the product of a biological process. During cardio-pulmonary resuscitation rescuers are trained to look for signs in an unresponsive victim called ABCs - Airway, Breathing, Circulation. One could say that as rescuers or doctors we subjectively recognize the so-called objective signs of consciousness.


I have often defined consciousness as a demonstrated awareness of space time. It is purely an arbitrary position, and I have no reference of anyone else who defines it as such. But it has been my experience through observation that if an entity makes or attempts to make variable (as opposed to uniform) changes in regard to stimuli, that entity will meet many philosophical criteria for consciousness. Your tree for example as opposed to a squirrel in the tree. The tree will uniformly turn and grow toward the light. The repeated identical stimulus of light elicits a uniform response from the tree, and all chlorophyl producing plants. It is probably not a conscious entity, although that is not definitive. But the squirrel in the tree may turn right or left, or run up or down the tree, or may even stand still in response to repeated identical stimuli. The squirrel is then definitely a conscious entity.

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