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I have noticed that I can sit in a room around people and be consciously aware ... but have no thoughts at all. People often say that your "mind is always thinking", but I can literally stare at a wall and think absolutely nothing: no words, sounds, pictorials, memories, emotions, sensations, etc.; and I can be consciously aware just fine.

I may drift off, but this brings up a good question: Does consciousness need thoughts or feelings to exist?

Many say house pets, like dogs and cats, don't have consciousness like us because their brains aren't "advanced" enough, but the best neuroscientists on Earth cannot verify this. So it's quite true that a dog may be exactly as conscious as we are, just without the capacity of our intellect, reasoning and the like.

Consciousness is not perfectly understood, and pinpointing it down in the brain is proven very difficult and still unfeasible thus far.

If we attribute consciousness with our human minds, does this reflect on poor understanding of our minds ourselves and make us ponder at the fact that an ant may be just as consciously aware as us?

  • this is essentially Mushin ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mushin ). But, I'm not sure whether the sensation of "no mind" is the same as actually having no thoughts or feelings, or whether it just seems like you aren't – Keith Nicholas Aug 14 '14 at 2:33
  • It is my opinion that "consciousness" is the result of neural connections from one part of the brain to another part of the brain, providing "feedback" paths. If these feedback paths are damaged, one would most likely end up "in a comma." If I am correct, then it is possible to have consciousness without thoughts. – Guill Aug 20 '14 at 8:51
  • you might want to check out the janas too en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhy%C4%81na_in_Buddhism the 4th is without pleasure or pain... – user6917 Sep 7 '14 at 17:36
  • Consciousness implies potential responce, you don't need to think all the time, but after some events conscious being has thoughts. – rus9384 Jul 23 '18 at 19:54
  • I feel you are equating consciousness and mind and that this rather muddles the issue. Among those who study these things the two words would signify different phenomena. Usually consciousness would be prior to mind thus prior to thought. . – PeterJ Jul 24 '18 at 8:30
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I think the phenomena you write of is more commonly referred to as Qualia or experience, in philosophy of mind.


Thoughts and feelings are to consciousness, what smell and sound and any other sensory input are for consciousness; and just as you can have consciousness without a sense of smell, you can have consciousness without thoughts and feelings.


A simple argument against ants necessarily having Qualia:

1) There is a lot going on in our brains for which we do not seem to have corresponding qualia; for example, involuntary movement of the eyes, formation of ideas (where do ideas come from?), body functions which the brain keeps on going while we are unconscious, etc...

2) So possibly billions of neurons in our brain have function without a corresponding Qualia.

3) Therefore, it is plausible that an ant brain of 250,000 neurons functions without manifesting Qualia.

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The OP asks: "Does consciousness need thoughts or feelings to exist?"

I am prompted to quote a Buddhist scholar:

If I understand the Buddha right, all unnecessary thinking arises from delusion and craving. Sometimes thinking is necessary, as when one needs to deal with a matter, internal or external, but most often it is not necessary at all, and in that case if it arises (and I know that in me it arises all the time, without letup, whether I want it or not), it arises from delusion and craving. To me the awakened most often does not think at all.

His experience is normally limited to the three aggregates, form, feeling and consciousness, and bypasses notion and the compositions entirely, though we have to remember that it is unitary and has not been cut up by notion and the compositions, precisely -- though he does not think "unitary" or "cut up".

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There are three texts in the Buddha's teaching that I have quoted before, but let me quote them again to make sure that what I say above is in the Buddha's teaching. The Buddha tells the layman Potthapada about the "conscious entry into the gradually obtained complete cessation of notion (abhisañña-nirodha, where the emphatic prefix abhi- qualifies nirodha)." The monk enters the four form meditations, then the first three formless places, and in each of the latter he ceases the notion of the previous stage. In the third formless place, which the Buddha calls the "summit of notions" (saññagga), he thinks: "To mentate at all is bad (cetayamanassa me papiyo), it would be better not to mentate (acetayamayum), but other gross ones would arise (añña ca olarika sañña uppajjeyyum). So I will not mentate and compose (na ceteyyam na abhisamkhareyyan)." So he no longer mentates and composes (so na c‘eva ceteti na abhisamkharoti), and to him no longer mentating and composing (tassa acetayato na abhisamkharoto), the notions cease (ta c‘eva sañña nirujjhanti), and other gross ones do not arise (añña ca olarika sañña na uppajjanti). So he touches cessation (so nirodham phusati). This is how the "conscious entry into the gradually obtained complete cessation of notion" (anupubbabhisañña-nirodha-sampajana-samapatti) comes about. DN, I, 184 (9), Chinese Dirgha-Agama, 28, 110b.

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Now then according to Buddha (Shakymuni), when one attains enlightenment one sees how things actually are as well as how things appears to be. This to me means emptiness is comprehended directly. Yet when you are there you are not comprehending "it", but emptiness is the comprehending. I think this may be what is to be clarified. I don't know if you practice meditation or not. But when you practice enlightenment, emptiness is self-revealing. There is no cognitive movement, but emptiness itself is cognition. Dzogchen, is more accurate with saying, it is a self-perfecting path.

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Does consciousness need thoughts or feelings to exist?

Consciousness: the state of being awake and aware of one's surroundings. (Thanks Google!)

Well from a grammatical perspective we're certainly safe. I would hold the burden of evidence to be on the counter-argument in this case. I know of no non-egocentric reason to assume that thoughts and feelings are a pre-requisite for consciousness, or even that the human mind is a pre-requistite for thoughts or feelings.

If we attribute consciousness with our human minds, does this reflect on poor understanding of our minds ourselves and make us ponder at the fact that an ant may be just as consciously aware as us?

I'll admit before attempting an answer here I had a bit of difficulty parsing this question, so let me know if I'm off-base.

Does this reflect poor understanding of our minds?

Usually.

I wouldn't say it necessarily reflects poor understanding, but I believe in practice it often does. It simply too easy to say "Oh, I've talked to conscious people. My cat never told me he was conscious as far as I can tell, so he probably isn't." There's certainly other arguments for consciousness as an attribute of human minds, but I do believe this is a common trap to fall into.

an ant may be just as consciously aware as us?

Hive-mind alert.

Well ants do seem to demonstrate some form of hive-mind structure, so I'd say if they are conscious it would be unlikely to be the same sort of consciousness we're used to. Perhaps it should be called by another name, but it certainly (in my opinion) shouldn't be held to absolutely not be conscious, especially at colony level.

House pets?

I find it extraordinarily unlikely that the most intelligent of domestic animals and primates don't exhibit higher forms of consciousness than some humans that have been ascribed consciousness. Especially in prolonged interactions with animals, its easy to ascribe to them the same thoughts and feelings humans have, though in a way somewhat affected by mental faculties. Other animals haven't developed to think and feel as we do, so there should be some expectation for difference. However, I think saying that any deviation from human mind confers a deviation from consciousness is quite arbitrary and difficult to separate philosophical arguments from those made on basis of apathy or ignorance.

In general I believe:

All life comes into its own as free and equal in dignity, rights and consideration. Such life as is endowed with reason and conscience also must observe this truth in transactions with any other form of life.

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My hunch is that consciousness just emerges at some point in creatures that possess complex enough brains. Or perhaps it appears at least in creatures of a particular biological or genetic make up. That is, creatures on earth such as dogs or cats, I suspect, have consciousness.

I guess I'm a little bit skeptical of the idea of philosophical zombies and I'd also say I'm also a little bit skeptical about the idea that we are the only creatures on earth privileged to be conscious. So, to me, consciousness is just something that tags long with one's biological set up. That is, consciousness is not just something that operates nakedly so to speak. If it were then stones could be conscious. Even worse, going further down that line of thought you might begin to wonder whether consciousness could exist outside the universe.

Could consciousness alone exist? Instead of thinking this way, I'd say consciousness is the awareness of cognition, emotion, desire and other such phenomena which derive themselves as emergent properties of the brain. So take a cat. Its cognition may be very basic, but nonetheless I suspect it consciously experiences something akin to what we experience when we are hungry. But I'd be hesitant to say ants are conscious because whether they have cognition or not is unknown.

  • I made some edits. You are welcome to roll them back or continue editing. You can see the versions in the "edited" link above my icon. I do recommend that you add references to people who believe the same as you. This gives the reader a chance to get more information. It also strengthens your answer. Adding those references would be a good reason to make another edit. Welcome to this SE! – Frank Hubeny Jul 23 '18 at 18:44
  • But what is a brain, exactly. What are the specific mechanisms that allow consciousness to 'materialize' (i.e. "emerge"). – Bread Feb 6 at 1:24
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I can certainly have consciousness without 'occurrent' thoughts - I can sit in a room and just stare at the wall without any thought such as 'How much money is left in my bank account ?', 'What a boring colour that wall is', 'How much longer will I have to wait ?' or 'These shoes are uncomfortable', coming into my head.

But my consciousness, while it can exclude occurrent thoughts like those just listed, does involve awareness. I am aware of the wall (in a way a statue or a dead dog isn't) even if I am not thinking anything about it or anything else.

So, yes, I agree : you can be consciousness without occurrent thoughts, though you must be aware of something (say in your field of vision).

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Thoughts have been dealt with. Meditation demonstrates thoughts are not neccessary at all times - though surely they must be a precondition except for awareness of the most abstract kind. You might be interested to look at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_information_theory which attempts to have a wuantitative value, which can differenciate between awake sleep coma, and between different beings.

Feelings are often dismissed, as distractions, as irrational, or otherwise as primarily getting in the way. But it's actually key to our intelligence e.g. 'How the amygdala affects emotional memory by altering brain network properties' https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/24583373/

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Dependent on the eye and forms, visual-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition there is feeling. What one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one thinks about. What one thinks about, that one mentally proliferates. With what one has mentally proliferated as the source, perception and notions resulting from mental proliferation beset a man with respect to past, future, and present forms cognizble through the eye (Majjhima Nikaya, I, 111–112).

What you describe sounds like a lack of attention to what you are sensing (ibid emphasis mine)

Vjñāna does not denote consciousness as a cognitive phenomenon distinct from sense perception. Rather, it refers to the consciousness of a specific sense modality (e.g., visual-awareness, auditory-awareness). Because the mental faculty is also regarded as a sensory system, the type of awareness that bears upon it is termed mental or ‘introspective awareness’ (manovijñāna). The arising of consciousness, thus, depends on sense perception, but it also depends on attention, since sensory activity alone does not give rise to perception. The latter activity requires attending to the stimuli: the amorphous mass of the sense data gives rise to a percept only when sensation is coupled with attention.

as you say:

literally stare at a wall and think absolutely nothing: no words, sounds, pictorials, memories, emotions, sensations, etc.

Coupled with a lack of inferential cognition, which I think is also performed by the same consciousness, mano vijnana.

Mushin is not a state in which the mano vijnana stops operating, but acts as prajna, wisdom, which is, in the relevant traditions, one with samadhi, meditative concentration. Dogen famously exhorts us to "think of not thinking", "without thinking", but I'd assume that means non-attachment to samadhi, rather than a blank unthinking mind. Though I suppose that some people will find it easier to achieve with an unthinking mind, especially as not "thinking" of e.g. good and bad is necessary.

You can find lots of zazen guides on-line and most will tell you to stay aware of what you are thinking about but not seize upon it or work out how you can do better.

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Does consciousness need thoughts or feelings to exist?

- No it does not.

Western philosophies have been mislead by the obsolete Cartesian idea Cogito, ergo sum ( Think threfore I am).

You don't need a thought to know that ice is cold or fire burns because it is in the subconscious part of your mind in the same way you don't need to think to be able to walk or stand up.

Not all your thoughts hit your consciousness and it can be known what you have chosen even before you are conscious of choosing it by neuroscientific experiments. Neuroscience of free will, Brain makes decisions before you even know it, Brain Scanners Can See Your Decisions Before You Make Them

Eastern philosophies have been calling this "to be in the now" to focus on the observer, to watch your thoughts as in meditation hence the quote "if you can observe it's because it is not really who you are"

As for animals according to the University of cambridge:

"Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals [...], including all mammals and birds, and other creatures, [...] have the necessary neural substrates of consciousness and the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors.

ref here.

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