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People seem to believe that one's consciousness is a "different" consciousness than that of others, but the "same" consciousness as the one that has been in one's body in the past and the one that will be in one's body in the future. How likely is this to be true and why?

Also, I have almost no knowledge about neuroscience, so please refrain from using neuroscience jargon if feasible.

  • An odd wrinkle here, what about something like an amnesiac coma survivor, who really does not have a shared memory stream with his past. I think that person would often not consider his the same consciousness as the one that went into the coma. – jobermark Dec 13 '14 at 3:54
  • @jobermark Memory does not equal consciousness. Do you remember all of your past in this lifetime? How about all the events from last month? – Swami Vishwananda Dec 13 '14 at 14:22
  • When you say consciousness, what do you mean exactly? Do you mean the physical brain, the mind, or consciousness (that which perceives). – Swami Vishwananda Dec 13 '14 at 14:26
  • Swami: I can't tell you what I mean, as consciousness is very hard to define. I don't mean the physical brain or what one perceives, though. I mean the standard (undefinable) definition of consciousness. – Kelmikra Dec 13 '14 at 16:11
  • @SwamiVishwananda First, I am talking about a reaction people naturally have, so I find it hard to dismiss it so easily. And second, I come from a Tavistock direction, so I lean toward the notion that consciousness is a single pool, and that what coalesces individual 'consciousnesses' is a matrix of shared experience, for an individual, that is made up almost completely of personal memory, even though much of that 'memory' is not 'real', in the sense that it abstracts general experience and does not record specific events. – jobermark Dec 13 '14 at 16:22
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In the context of consciousness as consistent identity, this can be different in the future or past. For an extreme example (rare in the population) see Wikipedia: Fugue state:-

Dissociative fugue, formally fugue state or psychogenic fugue is a DSM-5 Dissociative Disorder. It is a rare psychiatric disorder characterized by reversible amnesia for personal identity, including the memories, personality, and other identifying characteristics of individuality. The state is usually short-lived (ranging from hours to days), but can last months or longer. Dissociative fugue usually involves unplanned travel or wandering, and is sometimes accompanied by the establishment of a new identity.

  • This makes sense if you define consciousness being the same as meaning that one's identity is (approximately) the same, but what about in some other sense? – Kelmikra Jun 15 '15 at 9:40
  • In a sense other than 'identity', consciousness would seem to be basically, only awareness and the ability to mentate. This could change in scope and nature, for instance due to different nutrition. – Chris Degnen Jun 15 '15 at 10:21
  • Alas, that is not what I'm referring to when I mean consciousnesses being the same. I don't personally know what it means consciousnesses being the same, but I was talking with someone who says they do, and they claim it is unable to be defined in terms of physical makeup (thus including personality and memory) and percept histories. I was hoping that others would understand what they means, but it seems no one does. I cannot expect others to telepathically infer the definition of consciousness persisting, so I'm going to accept your answer, as it did the best it can do given what you know – Kelmikra Jun 15 '15 at 17:59
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From a direction at the far edge of psychology away from neurology (object-relational theory interpreting group therapeutic experience in the tradition of Tavistock process) we can think about consciousness as a less personal experience.

From that point of view consciousness itself is a shared pool of 'cathexis' (just a term for the mysterious pseudo-energy behind attention that makes things seem more or less important) rather than an individual thread of experience, but our personal memory coalesces our individual sense of our own single consciousness, and that memory resides primarily in a single mind.

So it is impossible to identify 'a consciousness' as being the same or different from another, only a set of memories, and your question loses meaning. The set of memories empowered by a given pool of consciousness can be the same as it was yesterday, or it can be different.

By virtue of being memory, it has some stability, but it also changes every time it is accessed, (whether you attribute that to "complex formation" or Hebbian learning.) So over time it is less and less the same memory. And if something unusual happens that takes the complex of memories apart, it may suddenly constitute multiple separate streams of memory. (E.g. one remembers some things about oneself while sleepwalking, and not others.)

That is my answer, but it needs a lot of framing to make sense to may people. Pardon my long-windedness here. I, personally, just find this fascinating.

Humans communicate, not only explicitly in language, but more generally by doing things that have the intention of being observed. That intention is often unconscious, but it creates patterns that create group identity and assign roles to individuals in interactive situations. In an emergency, for example, say if someone spontaneously collapses in a public place, someone will shortly attend to the body, someone else will move to alert authorities, someone will spontaneously start coordinating the event as 'news', guessing 'What happened?' and hopefully controlling the level of fear, while distracting onlookers from interfering, more and more nuanced informal roles arise in more and more complex situations. These assignments of people to roles are made neither explicitly nor arbitrarily, they are negotiated by unconscious interactions within the crowd.

This is group decision making, and so it constitutes communication. To oversimplify rather drastically, if consciousness is a prerequisite for communication, all of the consciousness that is unconscious to all of those present, yet coordinating all of this communication, must reside somewhere. If you head far enough down this path and just observe, it seems that the vast majority of the consciousness is not assigned to individuals, but goes back and forth between them in an ongoing group process.

At the same time, internal consciousness seems to be driven by the same sort of thing. Different parts of one's experience are 'cathected', pointed at a specific object, and the energy of that thought snowballs or melts away. Different trails of communication result, making up strands of internal conversation like the individual conversations at a party. What integrates a specific one of those strands seems to be the collection of internal referents that the coordinated processes have rendered conscious. Basically, a thread of conscious thought is a semi-organized pile of memories that it has marked as temporarily important, and little more.

So thinking of the individual as a coordinated group process, the consciousness that contains all of these threads is likewise held together by its shared pile of memories, and nothing more. Taking that to its logical conclusion, conscious itself is a shared, ongoing process which resides in no particular thread of considerations. When you are with others, you both maintain your individual consciousness and all share a single consciousness, and when you are alone, you segment yourself into multiple parts that do exactly the same thing. What constitutes a given 'consciousness' here is the pile of memories it curates.

There is shared memory, in that cultural traditions and other experiences may be reconstituted from multiple people in a sort of ceremonial sharing of the experience, but primarily, we have privileged access only to our own individual memories, which are very much stored in our separate brains.

  • What's the evidence for this view? Especially, what is the evidence that one must be conscious to communicate? If one does need to be conscious to communicate, then doesn't that mean anything with an internet connection is consciousness? – Kelmikra Dec 13 '14 at 21:27
  • @Kyth'Py1k I can point you at Klein, Bion and Tavistock for 'evidence', e.g. here: grouprelations.com/index.php?mode=57725d680e30553f06270725 but if you think the follow-up question is meaningful, it probably wouldn't matter, because it seems we mean totally disparate things by 'communicate'. If you think a computer 'understands' you then we are talking about totally different notions of 'communicate', 'memory', 'interpret' etc. I mean transfer of information between intelligences. When we communicate on the Internet that is us, and not the computers connecting. – jobermark Dec 13 '14 at 23:09
  • Could you define what you mean by communicate and understand? According the the first definition I get when googling the terms, computers seem to do both. – Kelmikra Dec 14 '14 at 1:21
  • @Kyth'Py1k I gave my definition of communicate, I am annoyed you didn't read it. My definition of understand also requires an intelligent being to receive information. I require an intelligent being to be potentially self-directed, which computers are not. When I impart my goals to an arrow, and it accomplishes them, the arrow is not intelligent. Likewise, when I write on a sheet of paper, it is I and not the paper that communicates when you read it. Computers just do these sorts of things in a more complex way. – jobermark Dec 14 '14 at 16:12
  • I don't see where you defined communicate. Could you point it out? You said that group decision making constitutes communication, but that's not a definition. I also don't understand why you think computers aren't self directed, as computers can plan and reason like anyone else. Perhaps you are saying so because the actions of computers are determined by their code, but this is unlikely to be your reasoning, as the actions of humans are also determined by their code, albeit their genetic code. – Kelmikra Dec 14 '14 at 16:45
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If by consciousness you mean the irreducible component of your inner experience which non-materialist philosophers call qualia, then it would be hard to say, since there is little we can say to describe it, and lacking properties how could it change?

the watching does not change, only the thing being watched.

On the other hand, if you are convinced today that there is something irreducible and immaterial about your experience of vision, sound, smell, feelings, etc, then you can write it down for the record.

Maybe 10 years from now you would feel that statement is unjustified, and you will have some evidence to suspect a change in your inner experience.

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One person does not have any empirical evidence that consciousness exists in other brains or anyplace else. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/other-minds/

No person has the ability verify whether or not they are conscious using the scientific method.

The use of the word "in" to describe the relationship of consciousness to oneself is interesting here.

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Don't you have flesh and bones in your body like every living creature? Yet, Aren't you different from those? The same is the consciousness. It is the same everywhere but unique as in you, to fulfill a purpose that's destined. It knows no pain, has no fear and doesn't have any emotion but it is so vital that without it you can never live.

The consciousness has always and will always be in one's body as you've said but the part where IT WILL BE in your body in the future, can be decided by your actions in the PRESENT, which in turn decides it's destiny.I'd like to bring to your notice, the strong connection between evolution and Karma. You are here as a human-being at present because of your good deeds. But you could have taken a birth as a bird or an animal in the past before you reached this present stage. And do any bad deed now, your next birth might have to start from the starting of evolutionary cycle, to a lower species of birth. On the brighter side, for your good deeds that have diminished your pile of bad deeds of all the births, your consciousness is liberated and you wouldn't have a future birth. It ends up, from where it originated-to the supreme power that you might call God, if you're an atheist-there still gotta be some superior energy that started this whole creation! Still not convinced? Analyse Newton's law-"Every action has an equal and opposite reaction". It explains the same thing. You kill a person in this birth, then in the next birth you'll be killed by the one you killed!

As to how likely it is to be true, lies in your own EXPERIENCE rather than believing stories of re-birth like a boy recollecting and identifying his parents in his previous birth. This experience comes when you allot some time for yourself, not playing computer games or stuff but by shutting your eyes and focusing your thoughts ( meditation may be). And if not you might get to realize this truth after your death, but what's the use? you'll be on your way to take the next birth and your memory of previous births get erased.

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The consciousness is just like a void state and when you focus your mind to that state, luckily you might experience this truth before you die.

  • For your question in the comments

Look, I am just like you on a journey to find the truth about these. I can't provide you with an evidence unless I experience it and even if I do experience it and tell you, the world let alone you, wouldn't believe me! If you are a theist, I'll ask you-Why do you believe in God? Give me evidence? How do you believe in an entity when you don't see it? If you are an atheist believing in scientific explanations, How could you believe in the Big Bang or God's particle? Did you see it? No! We believe people who had experience or had researched about it! Personally, I believe in re-incarnation likewise.

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    You made several strong, controversial statements in your answer, for example your claims about reincarnation. Please provide appropriate evidence for them. – Kelmikra Feb 12 '15 at 22:00
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Consider that you're not the same person as you were as of 4 years old. But then, you are the same person as you were 2 minutes ago. Clearly there is a gradual change involved, a history.

As far as I know the law doesn't make such a distinction, but rather regards the physical body as a person, and judges it differently based on physical age. This is difficult for a common sense notion of sameness of self. There's no abrubt transition from 14 to 14.000001 years, say, even if the law in some country would treat one's actions differently at these ages.

The more philosophical questions lurking here do not, in my humble opinion, have to do much with the gradual evolution of a self, which is obvious to me and I think to any clear thinking person (not implying that I'm one, though I like to think that I was ;-) ). Rather it has to do with what happens with more wholesale direct replacements of parts of self, like today we can replace a physical body part, like the heart. And it has to do with copying of self, and perhaps destruction of such copies, and so on.

There is perhaps a connection to notions of different self when under the influence of drugs, hypnotics or undue pressure.

One will need some very clear minded views on that in order to put in place useful legislation for the future, for the time (in say 40 years) when we will coexist with machine intelligences. It could be a fertile and useful area for philosophers to focus on. However, I suspect it will not happen. :(

  • @anonymous downvoter: please do explain your disagreement. it is hard for readers to intuit that from your downvote, since we're not telepathic, you see. until such time as you explain it, i and others will just have to assume that you're aware that you have no valid argument, maybe that you're hate-voting (note: the use of all lowercase is a sign of disrespect). – Cheers and hth. - Alf Jun 15 '15 at 13:21

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