First question here. I'm new to Philosophy and I'm wondering if it is a correct thing to say "I can prove my consciousness (to myself) by referring to it"?
This came up in my philosophy class. Something about it seems circular.
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No, for the same reason as you can't prove the existence of unicorns by referring to them. That you only need to prove this to yourself does not make a significant difference: the proof still needs to be correct. You can convince yourself of the existence of your consciousness, but that's something different.
Descartes famously stated Cogito ergo sum; "I think, therefore I am". Recently another question was asked that seems rather similar to yours: Can 'I think, therefore I am' be reduced to 'I, therefore I am'?
Allow me to quote from Chris Sunami's answer here:
It is true that in the argument I [think], therefore I am, any action could replace "think" without changing the structure. However, Descartes' specific claim is that thinking is the one thing he has direct irrefutable proof via personal experience of doing.
If you'd substitute 'think' by 'refer to x', thus getting "I refer to x, therefore I am", you still only prove that I exist, not that x exists. In this form, you can't prove that something exists by referring it exists. Rather, you prove that the things that is performing the act of referring exists. That may be the same, when you're proving the existence of your conscious, but that doesn't make the proof valid.
Does proof even apply?
Let's say I think I saw a UFO. Now I want to prove I actually saw it. What do I do? I do some research, make some statements, take some readings. In short, I focus on the things about what I saw, to find out its true nature.
Or put another way, all my attempts at proof and at study with respect to X are statements ABOUT X. But X in itself -- phenomenally -- is not up for any dispute. There is no doubt that I experienced the appearance of the UFO. There's only doubt as to what the "real nature" of this appearance was. Was it just in my mind, did it correspond to some physical object, did said physical object correspond to a hoax?
Consciousness is of this nature. There is no proof of consciousness for the simple fact that it's pure phenomenology, and phenomenology just is.
To put it more confusingly, unless you're a philosophical zombie, if you have experience, then you are conscious. Don't even try to argue or prove it :)
Consciousness is axiomatic, i.e. at the foundation of human reality, and self-evident, and is therefore not proved like you would prove a mathematical theorem. More correctly would be to say that one can validate consciousness, and this is done by a so-called ostensive process, which means basically pointing to our consciousness and saying "it's this!".
Quoting Harry Binswanger:
Proof is a process of inference—deductive or inductive inference. In either form, inference is a process of moving in thought from something known to something else logically related to it. An inference is made from something, not from nothing. Consequently, there must be a starting point. The starting point of any valid chain of proofs, however long, is the information given in direct awareness—i.e., the self-evident […] Self-evidencies, directly perceived facts, are what make proof possible. To state the point in an extreme form: proof is what we resort to when something is not self-evident. And let us ask: why does proof prove? What makes it “work”? Proof establishes an idea by connecting it to the directly perceived, the self-evident. To demand, therefore, a proof of the self-evident is an absurd reversal.
One's own consciousness is axiomatic, i.e. at the foundation of one's own human reality, and self-evident to oneself, and is therefore not proved like you would prove a mathematical theorem. More correctly would be to say that one can validate one's own consciousness, and this is done by a so-called ostensive process, which means basically pointing to one's own consciousness and saying "it's this!". Note, however, that this reasoning certainly does not apply to the next person's consciousness, which cannot be proved by referring to it, or by banging on your neighbor with a rock, or by any other empirical means. The closest you can come is by deciding that the next person's reports of conscious are sufficient for your personal needs.