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Does consciousness depend on our five senses? If we never have senses, would we have consciousness? It seems that if we lose our senses, we would maintain our consciousness. But if we never had senses to begin with?

Imagine a child born without any of the five senses.

If we must have some senses first before consciousness, then does that mean that computers can never have consciousness?

What do the various philosophical systems say about this?

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    Through which of the five senses do you sense anger, love or an idea? – nir Dec 24 '14 at 15:42
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    We don't only have 5 senses. – KnightHawk Dec 24 '14 at 18:17
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    Can you elaborate on what you mean by conciousness? – nakiya Dec 26 '14 at 2:30
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    Computers have senses. My phone has an audio sensor, a visual sensor, GSP, accelerometer, multiple wireless kinds of connections, etc. – obelia Dec 30 '14 at 23:39
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    @user25714 - There is no thinking without sensation, maybe, but is there consciousness? – PeterJ Jun 16 '18 at 12:13

14 Answers 14

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If the word meant is consciousness about the outside world (that we experience now), it needs senses. But all the five is not necessary. All the five become necessary only if you need to experience the outside world as others have. You might have seen blind men who are more cautious (not conscious) about the outside world than others are. Consciousness never increase or decrease when there is any loss of sense organs.

Some people's sense organs become deactivate while they meditate. We can't say that then they are completely in an unconscious state.

If the word is about Pure Consciousness, it needs nothing.

Think of your deep sleep. In that state, were you aware of yourself ...without any ego? ...without a second ...without a second for a second thought? Then, was there any activation in your senses?

Actually what you call senses are only a 'manifestation' of consciousness.

  • You may think about the 'senses' of unicellular organisms. – A.G. Dec 27 '14 at 15:05
  • There is no deep sleep. But senses are indeed a 'manifestation'. – Asphir Dom Jan 2 '15 at 18:49
  • If scriptures say there is a forth state, we will have to say there are other three states ... only for a name's sake. See sivanandaonline.org/public_html/… – A.G. Jan 3 '15 at 10:04
  • @A.G.- Not just scriptures. There are countless first-person reports and they keep coming. – PeterJ Mar 17 at 13:19
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Your question is a part of the mind-body problem in philosophy, which is part of the broader "theory of mind". You are essentially asking for the scope of what consciousness is, and in particular, whether it is anything more than the capacity for perception through the senses.

By its nature, consciousness requires you to be conscious of something. So what things can we be conscious of? Well, we can be conscious of external things through perceptions mediated through our senses, and so that is part of consciousness. However, we also the ability for introspection (i.e., perception of pieces of accessible information already in the mind). If I go into a nice quiet dark room and close my eyes, I can introspect and think about memories I have, or ideas I have, or other accessible parts of my mind. When I do this I "see" things in my consciousness, even though I have my eyes shut, etc. Hence, the scope of consciousness consists of two parts:

  • Perception of external things through the senses; and
  • Perception of internal information through introspection.

Based on this, it seems reasonable to say that if you lost all your senses, your consciousness would be limited to introspection. You would still be conscious, but you would be limited to "seeing" things that are already in your mind, through introspection. If a person never had any senses (e.g., they developed without them in utero) then presumably their brain would not receive any external signals and so the mind would have no information from outside. In this case, "introspection" would also be extremely limited (or arguably non-existent) since there would be no information in the mind for the person to introspect. In this case I think it is arguable that there is no consciousness at all.

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    I think you are sp4eaking only of intentional consciousness. For this as you say, consciousness requires you to be conscious of something. But the question asks if consciousness is always intentional, and this is a deep issue that leads immediately into the philosophy of mysticism. There is no evidence that Mind is necessary for consciousness although a lot would depend on how these words are defined. Bear in mind also that some folk (Buddhists for instance) say we have six senses and mind would be one of them. . – PeterJ Jun 19 '18 at 15:43
  • As described in my comments just under the body of the question, I don't think you are correct that if somebody was born without senses, they would not be conscious. Born without senses means born without any of the 6 senses, one of which is a sens of balance. I believe the actual answer to the question is not known. I don't think there has been research on the answer to that question. – Timothy Mar 26 at 19:27
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I lean towards a model of consciousness, where consciousness exists as a function of not our brains or our senses but the complexity of our bodies. From this perspective, EVERYTHING that exists in the universe is conscious, and a rock differs from a society of humans not in the rock lacking consciousness but in the rock operating at a lower level of consciousness.

An extract from an article I wrote on this matter:

We know from evolutionary biology that multi-celled organisms evolved from single-celled organisms. It is unclear to what degree single-celled organisms gave up their autonomy to be able to act as a single organism and it is reasonable to suggest that our individual cells have maintained some degree of autonomy (consciousness) that we are totally unaware of.

A lot of human behavior is associated with subconscious processes in the prefrontal cortex that psycho-analysts refer to as the super-ego. This super-ego reflects the internalization of cultural rules in the form of memes. Such memes often influence human behavior in ways individuals barely realize and can be considered a form of collective consciousness.

A group of humans that is connected by means of memes can act as a single conscious organism, much like a cell of our body can act as a single conscious organism (= the way the cells of our body interact with their environment is the same as the way single cell organisms interact with their environment — and yes, the cells of our body can’t survive on their own… but neither can an individual bee or ant). This and many other factoids directly imply that consciousness is not so much a product of our brains but rather a product of complexity and connectivity.

From that perspective, the concept of consciousness can both be reduced to the molecular level and expanded to the universe as a whole, with the universe as a very complex holographic quantum computer.

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You gave an example of a child born with no access to his/her five senses. This is an important distinction. Such a child would never have any means of making an assessment about itself, or anything other than itself. Consciousness is analogous to a room of constant data assessment, connected to a room where conclusions drawn in those assessments are stored. Where no data can be accessed, no conclusions can be drawn thus no consciousness can be found for comparison to previous data.

Conversely, in a situation where a subject has had access to data at some previous time, then consciousness suddenly deprived of any additional present tense data input is left with nothing but past tense data to assess, thus some degree of consciousness remains a viable conclusion albeit limited in scope to whatever remains in its adjoining room of conclusions drawn.

I hope this helps...

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I believe Zen Buddhism would suggest consciousness is independent of the five senses.

I love to show my ignorance by quoting Wikipedia for definitions, so here's their definition for consciousness:

Consciousness is the quality or state of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself.

In order to be conscious without the five senses, you must be able to be aware of something. The question can now be rephrased, can you be aware of something without senses to sense it. I would dare to oversimplify the Zen Buddhist beliefs and suggest that they believe you can be aware of "nothing." The entire challenge is to become aware of "nothing," given that all the senses can provide you is "somethings."

If you wanted to take it one step less metaphysical, a being which is not fully aware of its senses may be an interesting middle-ground between depending on senses and being independent of senses. If the effect of one's senses upon its Self approaches some small epsilon, the limit may be a conscious being with no senses.

If that is still too metaphysical, then you may have a particular model of the universe and consciousness in mind, and we should approach the question within the confines of your preferred model.

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    There is NOTHING without senses, because even nothing is not without sense. There are just many more senses past "usual" 5. Buddhism is not about getting RID from stuff. Buddhism is about SEEING stuff. – Asphir Dom Jan 2 '15 at 18:37
  • hm i believe this is incorrect. which consciousness exists without sense contact? not the five. dogen goes some way to say that there is no spiritual intelligence independent of the body. due to my disagreement, i'm the downvote :) – user25714 Jun 27 '17 at 20:01
  • Buddhist thought holds that consciousness arises at the sense-gates, plus mind-consciousnessness. The Heart Sutra, one of, perhaps the most, central texts of Zen has to be understand as reacting to this, in saying the detailed understanding of the arising of consciousness is not liberation, deep attainment of the nature of emptiness is. It is not contradicting the Tripitaka accounts, only pointing beyond them. Mind-only yogacara holds an additional two cinsciousnesses to the Tripitaka, which relate to karma. But subjective experiential consciousness is never described as disembodied, imho – CriglCragl Mar 17 at 22:31
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My belief is no, it does not. I like to think about it this way, there is a brain; the physical manifestation of our mental capacities, inside the brain lay or rather the brain itself comprises the infrastructure for our senses. Then, there is the mind; the mind uses the brain's capacities to make sense of the world. The mind represents the plentitude of mental models we create to navigate our lives. Then, there is the self, the self is the integration of the information from the combined efforts of the brain and mind to a reference point, that reference point being the self.

Another way to think about this is say for example if a building were to be built. The brain can be the concrete, and the metal, and iron and all the different physical materials used to construct the structure. The mind then is the instructions, the plan of how it should be constructed. The self can then be thought of the lead engineer or architect who uses the plans and the materials to make something of his/her own. The opinion here is that the self is where consciousness lives.

Anyways, what all this leads up to is, the senses, as we experience them can thought to be an interaction between the brain and mind. The senses however, are not part of the self which is consciousness. Are the inner-workings of an ear belonging to someone in a coma incapable of picking up sounds? I'd venture to argue they are perfectly capable of it.

Again, disclaimer here, there is just personal opinion

  • Funny funny life of our poor self, it all lies in INTERACTION. What is that magical interaction as not self itself? Senses are not different from mind. Mind is THE sense on its own. – Asphir Dom Jan 2 '15 at 18:46
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Helen Keller lost her senses of both sight and hearing at a very young age. She was described as being an "animal". While her teacher, Annie Sullivan, held her hands under a water pump, the young girl realized the sign language impressed into her palm by her teacher were words. Certainly her experience of consciousness depended, at least in part, upon her available sense impressions. A being, like a bat, experiences consciousness differently than we do because they "see" with their ears. But to answer your question, if I lost all my senses, I would be in a vegetative state, in much the same way a person put under a general anaesthetic experiences nothing. In my opinion, consciousness does depend on the sense impressions and the mind is nothing without them.

  • Who is Helen Keller? Can you please back this up with sources? – iphigenie Dec 29 '14 at 20:08
  • Sure, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Keller – Michael Lee Dec 30 '14 at 23:26
  • That is obviously not the case. Locked-in syndrome is different to veing in a vegetative state. Whether someone born without senses could develop consciousness, is the question. – CriglCragl Mar 17 at 22:37
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Perhaps, but not necessarily. I'm sure you've contemplated AI before (as we all have.) This intelligence would evidently not be biological in nature, so it more than likely would not have the five senses we commonly refer to, at least not as we conceptualize them. Yet, this machine would still be colloquially understood as conscious. We then might argue that this machine is not as "aware" as we are. Definitively conscious, but less aware. I hold the idea that consciousness operates on a spectrum- a spectrum of awareness. Consciousness then is merely a point by which we differentiate the "awake" from the less awake.

Minor digression here: Often times people fall prey to the false doctrine of binary thinking. Take for example, the classification of psychopaths and non-psychopaths. Let's say that one percent of the population displays all the requisite traits that would constitute psychopathy (approximation here, though I've read the number is something close.) Lack of respective traits in the rest of the population does not follow as a corollary. That is rudimentary thinking.

The same concept likely applies to consciousness. And while a machine can conceivably become conscious, the case will always remain that its perception is significantly different than that of our own. But all of this is purely speculation.

  • please don't confuse intelligence and consciousness, – John Am Jul 23 '17 at 12:11
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    A short addition with regards to AI: those are usually trained from and operate on a set of data. Even though its senses might not be comparable to those of a human, a data stream - be it a video feed from a webcam or just numbers from a large dataset - might be thought of as a sense, too. – milgner Jul 23 '17 at 15:40
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Yes, you will be conscious without your five senses. Consciousness is a necessary requirement to produce thought.

One only needs to prove that you would think or feel something without all of your senses. Ignore, smell, touch, hearing, sight and taste.

These are peripheral. There is still a feeling in your own head. A realization of your own self exists without any of these sensations. It's a feeling.

If you accept this particular claim that such a feeling exists, then ergo thought exists, ergo consciousness exists.

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Husserl said that consciousness is always consciousness of something. I'm not a serious student of Husserl, but I throw that out there for those who may want to begin a study of his phenomenology. I think Helen Keller may be as close as we can get to such a case, mainly because she was a very articulate, intelligent person herself, and she was able to leave behind a good record of her experiences. Her teacher was obviously brilliant. Once Helen had the feel of running water, and simultaneously the Sign (water) this opened up the world for her. So this topic of signs is a very interesting topic. I would add that our consciousness is not passive. We humans are always actively looking for a problem to solve, even if the problem is only boredom. The solving of problems one after the other just is evolution. I think all doctors would say that a child with no sensory input whatsoever would fail to thrive and would die very quickly.

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From a first-person point of view, consciousness is inherent. The 5 senses do nothing more than provide stimuli for the inherent consciousness to process. The gray zone begins when moving away from the first-person. At which point it becomes similar to the age-old "if a tree fell and no one was around, does it make a sound?" question.

In your example of the child born without 5 senses (or any senses for that matter), the child may be able to say for certain "I am conscious". But, those around the child -- bystanders and authorities alike -- would be unable to determine the consciousness of the child, for he has no way to interact in a meaningful way with his surroundings.

So from an introspective view based on how one views themselves, consciousness has no connection to the five senses. However, if given the views and opinions of other humans (which we sometimes take as a higher authority than our own), consciousness and the senses come hand in hand.

Really then, to answer this question, you must first answer another one: "Who are you asking?"

  • Oh god, I didn't realize it was a necro-thread. Don't ban me pls. – Peter Mei Jul 24 '17 at 3:04
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No it does not. If one was created in a physical body without senses or sense perception phenomena would still exist. The senses- eye and visible objects, ear and sound, nose and odor, tongue and taste, body and touch, mind and mental objects create our physical reality not actual reality, an Indian Guru or Buddhist would consider this a third eye or an untethered mind. That said we would already be accustomed to the consciousness created within our Mother's womb, Birth would not have been acknowledged nor death or an idea of any physical reality by the said negated senses, information gathered about the physical world would be nil. Not even animal instinct would exist! Our physical bodies would be at the whims of our caretakers and perhaps during this time our mind or more so our consciousness may also be in a complete state of bliss, what remains is an ecstatic state often referred to as rapture. A singularity with the true nature of reality for it takes our senses to create anything other than bliss like a new born baby who's feels physical hunger for the first time, similar to what the Buddha and of his followers have suggested, for this is what they strive for. But there may well be other consequences or issues other than the obvious of being born without senses (Buddhist belief in reincarnation and science beginning to prove that children up to age five and six remembering previous or past lives usually of close relatives. But either way if true, again the child would already be accustomed to consciousness gained in the womb.

The five colors blind the eye. The five tones deafen the ear. The five flavors dull the taste. Racing and hunting madden the mind. Precious things lead one astray. Therefore the wise person is guided by what she knows and not by what she sees. She lets go of ‘that’ and chooses ‘this’. Click Here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tGUfXOe9Jg) "For a Scientific Explanation"! And Here (http://www.robertlanzabiocentrism.com/) Or ()https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=porNKRWl0z0&t=5653s Click Here For Buddhist Psychology (https://www.thoughtco.com/buddhism-and-metaphysics-450059 )(https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html) And Here (https://www.thoughtco.com/sadayatana-or-salayatana-3887548)

  • If you have references that take a similar view, perhaps to what the Buddha said or his followers, since you mentioned them, they would help support your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome! – Frank Hubeny Mar 17 at 12:07
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Consciousness in the sense of being aware of your own existence necessitates an input of information to work with first. If there is no input of data or if the data is insufficient or if the ability to process the data is impaired consciousness cannot be achieved.

Consciousness is not realized in the physical part of our being. It is achieved in our immaterial minds.

The mind although has potential for optimal functionality it is limited by the processor or the brain and it in turn is limited by the biological machine.

If the machine lacks sight then the brain cannot process data to the mind about ocular occurances. The mind is not impaired because if sight is restored the brain is able to process sight for the first time and so is the mind. If the eyes are not impaired but the part of the brain responsible for processing sight is damaged or missing the mind cannot receive data even if there is nothing wrong with the eyes.

Hence there is a minimum amount of data that needs to be available to the mind that has been processed by the brain before the mind is able to recognize its autonomy.

If all decisions are prewired then true consciousness can never occur as in the case of AI (which has not been occupied by another dimensional mind if that is a possibility).

Therefore beside the senses, the input of data, the ability to input data, process data and retrieve data, one must have the ability to autonomously decide for themselves, a quality of a free mind.

Not all biological animals are able to achieve consciousness, although they may have self awareness, quite possibly all they achieve is self awareness and instinct acquired or learned. Humans require a certain level of cognition before they achieve consciousness.

I remember the first time I achieved consciousness. It was at the age of four and it was after I experienced self inflicted pain by planting my hand on the hot iron. It was several days later that I realized, I’m alive and I recall looking at my hands as though foreign to self and yet they belonged to me. I am not my body but my body is mine.

I guess trauma can escalate the process of achieving consciousness. Which is also measured on a scale called maturity.

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First, we don't need senses to begin with. If a child were born without senses then it would not have sentient experiences but to others the child would be conscious. For example we could feel it's breath or heart beat as an evidence of consciousness.

Secondly, Neuroscience hypothesizes that consciousness is generated by the interoperation of various parts of the brain, called the neural correlates of consciousness or NCC. Proponents of AC(artificial consciousness) believe it is possible to construct machines (e.g., computer systems) that can emulate this NCC interoperation. In order for robots to possess artificial consciousness, they must also have "mental life". Mental life is "To have internal representations of sensory input in the absence of the input.

Neurologists and computer scientists could conceivably create an artificial model of a human brain that might produce consciousness. Since we don't have a full understanding of how the brain works, building an artificial version might not be adequate to create actual consciousness. If it were certain that a particular machine was conscious, its rights would be an ethical issue that would need to be assessed.

Anyhow, artificial consciousness is still largely a theoretical subject.

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    In what way is breath an evidence of consciousness? The brain-dead still breathe. – jobermark Dec 24 '14 at 17:08
  • Not an answer to the question. I also agree with the comment above. – iphigenie Dec 29 '14 at 20:11
  • See Jobermark's criticism of the first paragraph, but more to the point we are talking about actual consciousness, not perceived consciousness (understand the question as if it were "Does actual consciousness depend on the five senses?*). The second paragraph you write is true (I agree with the whole A.I. part), but it doesn't seem to answer any part of the OP's question. You talk about mental life which is to have "internal representations of sensory input", but the OP specifically mentioned pre-input ("If we must have some senses first before consciousness..."). Can you clarify? – stoicfury Dec 30 '14 at 17:55
  • Lack of senses isn't what causes brain death. If that were true, then the loss of some senses (such as vision or hearing) would mean partial brain death. They're cognitive functions, not pure consciousness. – Bread Mar 18 at 0:23

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