I feel that for subjectivists and physcialists to have common dialog at all on the subject, we need a simpler definition of "consciousness" that is not implicitly biased against either camp, but based on real observation of real experience. Definitions by internal self-observation are biased to the extent they are not subject to direct self-report.

What we report happening as we feel time pass is the memory of time passing, and the evolution of all other memories seems to arise from references back to those memories of time passing.

So my provisional definition of 'conscious thought' is 'the memory of forming new memories'. It seems to me that we remember moments, and then discard them, and that we do not experience them until at least a temporary memory has been recorded. (More detailed argument here: https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/19596/9166 )

But it admits dreaming as a form of conscious experience. How much is that at odds with various people's expressed ordinary experience and previous philosophical consideration of the subject?

For example, writers consistently use sleeping as the example of living and unconscious. But do we mean to include dreaming when we do so?

There is also a perspective from which what is original about human thought is abstraction, which originates as a form of dreaming while awake. The idea is that animals generally do not abstract because they are either never (in waking time) or always (in dreaming time) composing alternative interpretations, and abstraction is the habit of composing stories about real life. (Rather questionable motivation here: https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/18484/9166 ).

(I guess that is presuming a modern interpretation of what dreaming is -- composing alternative interpretations of random neuronal firings until something apparently meaningful enough to seem worth remembering converges.)

So purposely omitting dreaming from our model of consciousness could be losing value and a warping perspective.

  • 2
    I don't have an answer to the question, but "random neuronal firings" is not a great characterization of what happens during REM sleep. It's highly structured. (You may know this, but to a general reader "random" would suggest something more like snow on an old TV.) See, for instance, this classic paper on temporal replay: Louie & Wilson, Neuron v29 p145 (2001); sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627301001866
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 21:27
  • You can see that pattern as the 'composing alternative interpretations' part -- by the theory I am thinking of the impulse is from clearing ion biases, or something which is also not truly random, but then the normal interpretation mechanism goes into full swing, activating the brain in a very structured way. I will try to come up with a better wording.
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 2:15
  • What is "clearing ion biases"? Do you mean something like the flushing with cerebrospinal fluid (presumably to help with much larger metabolites and other undesired extracellular crud like A-beta): ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3880190 But what does that have to do with the impulse?
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 2:51
  • may be worth nothing that a) heidegger never talks about dreaming or never seriously b) some psychologists suggest dreams don't occur they are false memories. i think ?
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 2:56
  • @RexKerr This may be the mechanism, but I am working from older, more basic, ideas. We know that the balance of calcium and sodium ions used to trigger nerve impulses is improved after sleep. The only way to get them someplace else is to conduct them there, and part of that transfer would inadvertently trigger actual nerve activity.
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 3:48

2 Answers 2


Short Answer: Dreaming is a form of consciousness.

Long Answer:

I have a concern with defining consciousness as the "memory of forming new memories". First, are we pushing things back by treating memory as a synonym for consciousness (I want to avoid Cartesian Theater fallacies by claiming consciousness of a memory)? Second, do we have memories of memories, or memories of experiences? Third, do we ever experience forming memories or simply experience itself?

What about this definition (from here), which states that Consciousness is...

  • what you lose when you fall into a dreamless sleep, and what you gain when you are dreaming or are awake.

Now this definition is a bit simplified, as it doesn't cover cases in which we're awake but unaware (on autopilot), but I think it captures the essence of the thing.

Having said that, there is a strong connection between memory and consciousness, to the point that losing one can mean losing the other.

As for comparing dreaming to wakefulness, I've read similar comparisons, but they seemed to assert one of the following:

  1. Sleep-walking as an analogy to going on autopilot or not being aware.
  2. Dreaming as an analogy to a deluded way of seeing things (more about the objects of consciousness or state of consciousness rather than consciousness per se).

If you haven't done so and are interested, two relevant works on this subject are Daniel Dennet's Consciousness Explained and David Eagleman's Incognito.

  • My definition is not circular. And your answer is. I am seeking a definition that is not biased against physical or against idealist interpretations, but just addresses observed patterns. This is a subjective self-observation, so it is strongly biased toward idealists and against physicalists.
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 2:11
  • I have read Dennett, and will look up Eagleman.
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 2:12
  • @jobermark if you elaborate on the "memory of forming new memories", the definition may be revealed to not be circular, but as phrased, the two uses of memory in that definition make it seem circular. Consciousness is so fundamental, that it's easy to provide circular definitions. In fact, I might have done this in the answer and don't realize it; if you tell me how my answer is circular, I may be able to improve it.
    – R. Barzell
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 13:24
  • Is the phrase "talking about talking" implicitly circular? It is a real phenomenon. people do all the time. It covers whole disciplines: grammar, linguistics and philology. So then neither is "memory of memories". If we can remember the memory and we feel we know when we got it, we are remembering forming the memory. This seems to be the self-reported content of consciousness, you recite new experiences or decisions or the mere memory of time passing. Your answer is circular because it does not base its decision on anything other than a definition that purposely includes the answer.
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 14:13
  • @jobermark point well taken; circular was the wrong word. Answer edited. Also, "consciousness" was not part of the definition in the definition I quoted (it was on the other side of 'is'), but I re-structured the answer to make this clear.
    – R. Barzell
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 14:28

OK I'm gonna go out on a limb and try and answer :)

I think Merleau Ponty would say that what defines consciousness isn't phenomenology or "internal time consciousness" but perceptual faith, that there is a subject that can be deceived or have veridical perception. Even though it may seem that there is no consciousness in dreaming cos the dream isn't real, it's not an experience of the real which makes us but an experience which could be real. Here IMVHO he tries to undercut the history of bald solipsism and global scepticism, by encouraging us to redefine our terms, based on science AND philosophy, or we might say instead of the latter, "seeing".

Quite how this fits in with the history of western philosophy since him, I do not know. But anyway, he's a naturalist but not a scientist, doing philosophy of mind and embodiment; by engaging with problems that are essentially philosophical rather than clarifying such problems by dissolving them tout court.

In that sense, perhaps he could be said to be doing a +ve synthesis of the negative.

The key point here, IMHO is in the Visible and Invisible, his assertion that science will indeed reduce the world to a great object, of science, but will thereby be more anaemic and ultimately in some way invalid. Perhaps because it cannot then account for its place in history or human thought; can science do a genealogy of science; can we believe scientific theory in toto without being scientists and artificially limiting our field of questions; can any science really erase our scepticism about the "invisible" even if philosophy itself cannot strictly do so either? For me this is "perceptual faith", maintaining the problem of scepticism as a problem, which goes some way to answering it, if not the full way.

Sorry I am ranting, but in my defence that book the Visible and Invisible is both fascinating and impossibly unfinished due to his death.

  • If faith means willingness to act upon a belief, I can have 'faith' in things I have not consciously perceived (if I unconsciously notice everyone is nervous, so I break the tension, am not conscious of the fact, but I have faith in it.) So what is 'perceptual faith' beyond that? If it involves being conscious, we are in a loop...
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 3:37
  • no faith is in what we do see... couldn't make sense of ur comment tho tbh, it's late haha :)
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 4:58
  • I might accept that as a definition of being conscious of something. I was considering 'consciousness' more the ongoing act of becoming conscious of things. But still, in general don't you have that faith because you know how the information came to you, or because you recall when it was useful in previous thinking? If you 'just know' something, that awareness is often unconscious of it until it is used, at which point you remember it arising, or you recall yourself acting on it and decide to consider it realistic.
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 15:02

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