Humans consist of complex physical materials. However, we determine and experience our lives through numerous spiritual moments. Should consciousness be described as an outcome of physical matter and senses, or is it a higher mental construction?
Your question, essentially how do we bridge the gap between the physical and mental is the central theme of Cartesian duality also known as the mind-body program. It is related to several other important ideas, like the proposed hard problem of consciousness and the problem of other minds.
This basis for this line of philosophical inquiry has been going on in some form since the Presocratics, but Rene Descartes certainly tackled it with such force, that it largely takes its modern dimensions from him, and hence the eponym.
Needless to say, finding an answer to that question is unlikely to be satisfied by a post on Stack Exchange. Many quality philosophers, such as Gilbert Ryle, Daniel Dennett, or Jaegwon Kim have spent their careers attempting to wrap their mind around the problem.
Suffice it to say, the three philosophers I have listed have approached the problem by examining the categorical nature of the question itself. For instance, Gilbert Ryle pronounced Cartesian Duality nothing more than a category mistake. That is to say, the the category of concrete and the category of abstract are categories of the mind, and that the two categories of mind and body don't intersect explains why there appears to be a gap in our idea of causality, also a category of the mind.
I've yet to find any two philosophers who share an answer in its entirety, so the only way you're likely to find a satisfying answer to this question is to attempt to answer it yourself.
How can we describe consciousness
Perhaps a better question is: What is consciousness or What am I
I see many answers here which do not stem from a direct investigation of consciousness, but from mind and what the Ego thinks consciousness is. Those are doomed to be theoretical and full of errors, since the mind is not infinite enough to grasp something that is not an object of experience.
To really know the answer all you have to do is turn attention away from all objects of experience and notice the empty field of awareness / consciousness which allows all experience to be known here and now. It's rather practical and everyone can do this. Requires no beliefs, interpretations or guessing.
You have a front row seat when it comes to being able to investigate consciousness, because you are consciousness in your deepest essence. Putting it on a paper will be harder than realizing what it is.
I guess to answer your question, in written form, I would have to try my best to describe in words that in which the words themselves (and everything else which exists) appear:
Consciousness is an ever present, effortlessly self-aware field of being, with no form, no size, no qualities whatsoever - in order to allow all qualities to exist within it. Just like a screen needs to be transparent in order to allow all varieties of colors and forms to be shown within it.
It is not an object of experience, it is that which allows objects of experience to be known. I see many answers here trying to approach to answer the question by viewing consciousness as just another object, like Mind or Body. But if we look at our experience, consciousness is not perceived as you perceive thoughts, images, perceptions and other objects of experience. Consciousness is not something which can be seen, smelled, touched, thought, derived etc., but you can verify that it is there by asking yourself the question "Am I conscious?/Am I aware?", you cannot know consciousness by any kind of objective qualities, which is where the mind fails and this becomes the "hard problem of consciousness". But it isn't hard at all. It's 0 itself, but 0 and infinity are hard problems for the Mind.
To know consciousness one has to relax their focus from objects and see what remains. If consciousness is viewed as an object, then the investigation is already poisoned and will not yield the right result.
Once you find consciousness, you will be able to describe it without having to theorise, but from direct experience.
What is consciousness? Hm! Sounds like dangerous waters to attempt to navigate, but, anyway, here goes;
Consciousness, at least within a psychological frame seems to always include an aspect of self-awareness. But even taken together these two conceptions have not seemed to logically lead anywhere useful. That is primarily because different interpretations of what it means to be aware of self just lead into differing types of argument which never seem to go anywhere other than in concentric circles. So here is a quite different path or at least a suggested path to unraveling this persistent 'Gordian knot'
Spinoza in his "Ethics" Part Three- Of the Affects [Emotions] in Propositions 6-7-8, introduces, what he considers to constitute the essence of human nature, he termed it 'conatus' or 'striving'. It has been defined as 'self-assertive impulse', 'desire'/'appetite' and 'agency-in-act'. Taken together these three designations indicate the nexus where the urge to continue in existence merges with the desire to accumulate the necessary security and products required and the capability and intelligence to problem solve and join with other like-minded people to form communities to accomplish these ends.
The bodily mechanism operating through this 'conatus' receives impressions from objects/people in the environment [today we would term these digital signals]. These impressions instantaneously convert into 'emotional triggers' which automatically and ceaselessly bombard the brain with inputs which it stores. These data are then 'taken under consideration' by the mind which sorts, analyzes and converts into 'ideas'. Some of these 'ideas' become 'adequate' or clearly understood. Others, which cannot be deciphered remain 'inadequate'. The function within the mind which performs this evaluation consists in a combination of 'reflective knowledge' [observing, measuring and comparing past experience with the data and 'intuitional understanding' [let's leave that for the moment].
This then, while not a modern explanation of consciousness is one that may, just may, be deserving of consideration.
For further reading on this see; Spinoza's "Ethics" and "on the Improvement of the Understanding". Spinoza's Strange Symbiosis- Where Emotion and Thought Conjoin. [available soon on Academia.com and Amazon] CS
I am familiar with 2 different approaches. The definition from wikipedia:
Is the state or quality of sentience or awareness of internal or external existence.
Western / Neuroscientific
consciousness noun [ U ] uk /ˈkɒn.ʃəs.nəs/ us /ˈkɑːn.ʃəs.nəs/
The state of understanding and realizing something.
That is to say if you are asleep you are unconscious buy your subconscious part of your mind is active otherwise you would not notice the alarm clock when it rings. For this approach consciousness is created within the neuronal network and it's just a feature of the mind. ref here. Consciosness could be described as the part of the mind that notices the passing of time and makes you self-aware.
Eastern / Existential / Spiritual
"yogas chitta vritti nirodha" Patanjali's Yoga Sutra
Yoga is the cessation of the mental processes. The goal of yoga is to achieve a pure state of consciousness that is to say we want to stop the mind through asanas, pranayamas, meditation etc. just to focus on the silent watcher of the mind (consciousness). For this approach consciousness is something you can tap into but it's not the mind, not produced by the brain, not part of your idea of self (ego) it is not even material but metaphysical. It has no form and it is not an object. It has no end and no beginning, no past and no future, no birth and no death because it always happens here and now. It cannot be explained but experienced. It something that has always been there but your mind has been hiding it from you through ideas, feelings, ego, thoughts, etc.
According to Jnana Yoga and Buddhism to discover what consciousness is you must ask yourself "who am I". According to those philosophies you are not anything created by the mind eg. "your nationality, your culture, religion, system of believes, political affiliation etc. because those things are mental constructs learnt along the way which are subjected to impermanence e.g. you are not who you were 10 years ago but the illusion of it.
Scientific investigation of conscientiousness fairly recent and it will get deeper as neuroscientific research progresses.
Answers like pbxman's that distinguish eastern and western (notion? approach?) consciousness are a good starting point.
It will be found however that some oriental teachers have refined and reified consciousness – if that's possible! – to include both and the spectrum in between.
The following is from Talks with Ramana maharshi
A young man, Mr. Knowles, came for darsan. He had read Paul Brunton’s1 two books. He asked: “The Buddhists say that ‘I’ is unreal, whereas Paul Brunton in the Secret Path tells us to get over the ‘I- thought’ and reach the state of ‘I’. Which is true?”
Ramana: There are supposed to be two ‘I’s; the one is lower and unreal, of which all are aware; and the other, the higher and the real, which is to be realised. You are not aware of yourself while asleep, you are aware in wakefulness; waking, you say that you were asleep; you did not know it in the deep sleep state. So then, the idea of diversity has arisen along with the body-consciousness; this body-consciousness arose at some particular moment; it has origin and end. What originates must be something. What is that something? It is the ‘I’-consciousness. Who am I? Whence am I?
On finding the source, you realise the state of Absolute Consciousness.
A page later
The visitor said: “The world sends impressions and I awake!”
Ramana: Can the world exist without someone to perceive it? Which is prior? The being-consciousness or the rising-consciousness? The being-consciousness is always there, eternal and pure. The rising- consciousness rises forth and disappears. It is transient.
So we see that there are many different attributions of consciousness :
- Rising-consciousness (sometimes called waking or body-consciousness)
- Being consciousness (or I-consciousness)
So at the risk of gross oversimplification :
- Rising/waking/body consciousness is what is discussed in western mode
- Absolute consciousness is what orientals talk of (in philosophy mode!)
- Being or I consciousness is the key: Which way it faces determines which door opens
1Paul Brunton in effect means Ramana since the major part of Brunton's books consist of Ramana conversations, grappling with the idea etc
People like to invent pretentious things about 'consciousness', and in the process create new definitions of it every time they speak. Is conscious the opposite of unconscious? Is it the opposite of inanimate? Is it the opposite of unknowing? Or of being incapable of knowing?
You can make it include whatever you want, as long as you never slow down and say exactly what you mean. In that case we are back to the point where some kinds of unconsciousness are conscious.
If it is the former, then neither the complex structure nor the spiritual experience have anything to do with it. It is merely the awareness of the changes taking place in your memory by the events of the given moment. If those events are calm awareness or mystical experience or psychotic delusions is not material to the question.
If it is the very last, then of course it includes anything that can enter into memory and affect future decisions. So of course it includes all the experiences, real or otherwise, that people have gone trough, from their boredom to their dreams and their epiphanies.
Does is apply to time that you know has passed but have not necessarily experienced, but evaporates into the editing of our internal narrative known as flow? (As Heidegger has pointed out is most of our lives) Or is it specifically about moments when you are pulled out of the state of flow by events? Or does it rely upon the liminal state between these, where you are neither gone from your own life, nor thrown into deliberation, where you can establish mindful connection without obsessional domination?
Since we don't know what the word even means, why don't we talk about something well-defined?
I will go out on a limb and try to provide my personal definition, not something from an established cannon:
Consciousness is the state of responsiveness to sensory stimuli intersecting an ability to examine them internally to arrive to a subjective experience
Explanation: We correspond with our surroundings via senses and to just receive them but not process and store them in memory would be like seeing or hearing something and forgetting it instantly. I suspect lower neurological forms of life may function this way. But to be conscious like humans are, there has to be the trajectory outlined as
- sensory input
Another way to define it would be ability to obtain experience by processing external stimuli.
Truth be told, today I was going to ask Philosophy SE the exact question but posing more challenges than the typical what is consciousness. The matter generates consciousness is just not right. You cannot explain your first person, self referential explanation with it.
I don't have an answer. But I have the scientific method:
- Make Contradictory Hypotheses
- Examine your hypothesis using tools of logic and observation
- Reduce the number of viable Hypotheses
Basically, the human imagination permits us to think of "stuff" in two boxes. The first is matter and we like to think it is slave to the laws of physics. The second is Qualia, or the thing we actually experience. We see a storm, particles are just observing the laws of physics, but to a human eye, it can be a threat and seen as an object of destruction or beauty.
The first hypothesis I made was that consciousness is really matter in motion. This has a problem that it cannot explain why an exact copy of me can still exist, yet "I" wouldn't be able to experience it's POV. If consciousness is really a flow of particles in patterns, then why is it not possible to replicate my exact consciousness in a computer? Do I suddenly then wake up at two places? No. The answer is obvious like second nature. Given the size of our Universe, there is a non-zero chance that some of the patterns might've already repeated, yet my consciousness is very particular about the memories and qualia that I have acquired with this physical body. Think about twins that share the same genetic makeup, same upbringing: does the awareness then float between the two bodies? Definitely not. Self awareness is a very local thing and it is unique therefore in the universe unlike matter configurations. Therefore matter configuration is not the same as self awareness. Everything can match, but consciousness remains local.
The second hypothesis is that consciousness is a non-physical phenomenon, and the universe is intrinsically dependent upon observation for its realisation. Consider the informational quality of systems. It seems that math is sufficient to describe what any system will do. If I give you a complex system, given time you could figure out every variable and time dependent law there is to that system. Soon, you can reduce the entire system to equations and numbers on a piece of paper. But what is information? Information has represented the entire complexity and time evolution of this system. Yet fundamentally, each bit of information is an answer to a yes or no question as Susskind puts it. You can similarly think of the entire universe as just information in abstract space, and there would really be no difference. If everything is represented by information, there is no reason why information itself cannot have a life of its own, independent of any "physical substrate" because inside its space it can create anything it wants. Consciousness then becomes a mean to observe and differentiate information. Without consciousness of some kind, everything looks the same everywhere; A particle moving in an electric field decides which way it wants to go based on the information it has about the electric field and its "own" charge. Self-awareness then becomes an inbuilt property of any universe and this simulation can have everything in it so long as there is an observer inside. The observer becomes the means to decide what to do and what not to, answering the yes/no question. This hypothesis makes intuitive sense to me.
I don't know what is right. My two cents.
For me, consciousness describes awareness.
Awareness consists of a few key things:
- Sensing variation in surrounds
- Memory and recollection
- Imagination, or prediction
There is a locus of awareness - this is the boundary defining the substance which may sense.
There is a scope of awareness - this is the extent into the surrounds which the locus of awareness can sense.
"Surrounds" refers to the substance of matter but matter itself is an aggregation of energy therefore "variation in surrounds" refers to instantiations of energy.
"Memory and recollection" imply "understanding" but "understanding" is essentially the same as saying "aware", which is my definition.
"Imagination, or prediction" also implies "understanding", which is to say "awareness" but the point here is the predictive nature of this awareness.
To take a concrete example, consider a human baby. Its body may, at first, spasmodically move. At some point the child becomes aware of the movement of its body. That is to say, if we take its hand or arm as an example, the body flexes the arm but the "mind" recognises (cognition) "self"; that is, there is an understanding that that arm is "mine". How is this understood? By its (the arm's) boundary. The skin senses the air through which it moves, or the mattress which it touches. The locus of awareness is the human body here. The variation in surrounds is the interface between the body (skin, in this case) and the air or bed. Importantly, the mind recalls a memory of this movement-touch experience that occurred in a past time (a moment before). I suppose to this point we have enough to have established the presence of consciousness in this child but I have added that last point about prediction. That is to say this child has learned not only that it has a skin boundary at its arm, but that it (the child) itself has agency over this arm: it may make a choice to move this arm. What does this mean? It means the mind of that child has formed an association between its spasmodic movement and its (the child's) impact within its surrounds; it understands that it has agency over its own movement. The spasmodic movement becomes less random and more directed by its own agency because the mind understands a prediction: if I do this (whatever that may be internally), then my arm will move in some manner I desire. I suppose this sense of "desire" may fit into the definition also for this is what gives sensorial creatures their drive; their will; their agency.
The other senses - taste, sight, smell and hearing - are all just extensions of touch. We generally understand touch in the sense of the material world while vision senses variation in light reaching the eyes - in a sense (no pun intended), these are the same thing: seeing detects variation in light reaching the eye; touch detects variation in the solid matter reaching the skin (where solid matter is essentially a manifestation of energy as is light). In the case of vision, our locus of awareness (body) senses material things at a distance. We are able to predict these things exist "over there" because we see them. This understanding of the physicality of our universe is reinforced because when, as a baby, we see that rattle "over there" and reach out with our arm to touch it, we find that we do, in fact, actually touch and feel it with our skin. That is, our mind has formulated an understanding of the presence of some distant object and our conviction in that understanding is strengthened through touch - to the point where we no longer need to touch things that are distant, we just believe them to be there (with good reason).
Hence our scope of awareness extends as far as we can see, as much as we can hear, to whatever substances may enter our nostrils and be understood as a variation in surrounds (my point 1; there are some substances we cannot smell and it is quite right to say we are not conscious of them - not through smell, anyway), to whatever substance likewise may enter our mouths and trigger all the senses involved in taste and to whatever we may feel by our skin.
The above is, in my view, one way in which we may describe consciousness: a locus of awareness which senses variations in surrounds, memorises and recalls these sensations through time understanding the difference between "past" and "now" due to a predictive-imaginative ability and which therefore has a scope of awareness limited by its sensorial capacity.
Whether this sensorial-understanding capacity results from the material-energy substance of the locus of awareness or not is a separate question. It seems to me that most believe the physical construct of the body yields a mind but it also seems to me possible that consciousness may be something other than physical but manifests its experience tied to a locus of awareness. Cars always offer up useful analogies: imagine, if you will, a person driving in a car. Did the physical construct of the car, just sitting there, magically yield a person inside who experiences the pleasure of its drive through a countryside? Or did a person enter the physical car - still very much having exactly the same experience as if it had been that the person had become magically manifest? I am not so sure we can tell which it is, when it comes to our minds being "tied" to our bodies. We may believe they are tied to them - in the same manner we may believe that what we see is real because having touched the things we saw underscored that mental (memory-predictive) model of the world around us - because we generally seem to be only ever aware of experiencing our surrounds through that locus of awareness, but there are plenty of anomalous experiences that require explanation. Dreaming is a common and relatable example. People speak of out-of-body and near-death experiences and drugs may induce these states. At this point those examples may be understood as the imaginative part of the person "dreaming up", or imagining sensorial variations in surrounds that do not match up with what they would experience if their body (locus of awareness) were to reach out and attempt to touch the things of these experiences. But how should we know - I mean how could we even test - whether imagination is not reality and reality is not imagination? It is simply the perceived consistency of one over the other which leads us to "believe" what we do about the state of our surrounds. In any case, such contemplation is itself an example of the predictive ability of the locus of awareness that I described above.
This discussion lends itself to asking whether non-human entities may be conscious. It has always astounded me that humans may be so obnoxious as to presume they are unique in this world when it comes to consciousness. Even as a child it seemed patently obvious to me that animals sense and understand (that is to say, are able to memorise their sensorial experiences, recall them, distinguish between sensing in the present and senses past and predict future outcomes assuming certain current facts about their surrounds).
Let me take this discussion to a mind-boggling concept. Have you ever seen the video of a macrophage chasing a bacterium? Here we have, for all intents and purposes, a single cell of life actively pursuing prey. More than that, the prey itself - the bacterium - though perhaps a hundred times less bulky than the macrophage - appears to be actively trying to evade the pursuing beast. What is going on here? Are these two cells conscious? The macrophage isn't even considered a stand-alone life form: it is a single cell that is part of another's body!
But now take a look at this video of a bear hunting a deer and tell me this does not look like exactly the same behaviour! Hopefully we may more easily relate to the bear and deer and agree that each is conscious in this case. By my definition, each appears to be sensing variation in its surrounding (the deer is detecting the presence of a bear and the bear is detecting the presence of a deer), each appears to have memorised what the other is like and can recall that memory (as evidenced by one pursuing the other - exhibiting, as I understand it, a desire to catch the other, while the other attempts to flee - also exhibiting desire; in this case, to not be caught) and each is predicting what might occur in future (which is also part of the "reason" for their pursuit and evasion behaviours). (Side note: to even say that animals have a reason for their behaviour implies they are conscious, actively reasoning).
If the bear and deer are easy to understand - perhaps because of their similarity to our own experience, in terms of body size and makeup - can we not look at the two single cells and wonder whether each of these has its own sense of agency? Yes - single cells! Not entire brains contained within an aggregation!
If you say yes - as I am inclined - and these two cells are actually part of "my" own body, does this mean there are conscious entities with scope of awareness at a microscopic scale existing within this aggregate of cells I call my own body? And yet I am not even conscious of their existence! If so, then why shouldn't plants be conscious across time scales relevant to them? And why shouldn't I, in this aggregated body, not be part of an even larger entity - a larger locus of awareness about which "I", myself, have no awareness or understanding? And so we reach a "fundamental inter-connectedness of all things". (The imaginative author of that phrase may have been more than entertaining; he may have been right!)
Since there is cosmic consciousness, it is not worth dealing human consciousness separately in some cases. You know, even the answers to many questions regarding death aren't fully known even today. The same is the case of consciousness also. This is because of that great cosmic consciousness. We can never deny the fact that even in unicellular organisms like bacteria and viruses have consciousness. Then you can make sure that consciousness has no relation to the number of cells or its complexity. Consciousness is everywhere -- in animate objects, inanimate objects, tangible, intangible and everywhere.
The following link is just for giving you some hints.
Should consciousness be described as an outcome of physical matter and senses, or is it a higher mental construction?
He who can look into himself realizes this Truth. When he realizes it, he knows his consciousness is everywhere and everything ( https://www.speakingtree.in/allslides/sarvam-khaluidam-brahma )...and he attains liberation from all bondage. Now you may think about: "What happens to consciousness even if his body becomes no more?"