Consciousness has been debated for centuries however not only we don't have a good definition of it, I struggle to believe this term makes any sense. To me it looks like the term was made up purely to distinguish people from animals and plants (and it's been proven that animals have a level of "consciousness" comparable to human beings and plants have something akin to the central nervous system) or to recreate the "soul" scientifically.

To me one of the largest arguments for the existence of consciousness seems to be free will however modern science and scientist have been slowly shifting towards free will simply not existing and if it doesn't then we are merely biological "computing" (I've put it in quotes because I'm not sure we cann prove the brain actually computes as computers do) robots who exist solely to fulfill our genetic program which forces us to eat, survive and procreate as effectively as possible which leaves very little for consciousness if anything at all.

It could all boil down to the brain getting information about the world outside and "computing" the best role model to satisfy its needs. There even have been experiments which show that people's brains, given dilemmas, arrive at choices before people themselves can voice and express these opinions rationally, as if the computation occurs behind the scenes, automatically and subconsciously and rationalize it as if we actually arrived at it by "thinking", i.e. be employing our "consciousness".

It looks to me philosophers are trying to create an entity which is just not there. To give an analogy, you can call swallowing food, digesting, absorbing nutrients and then defecating some word, say, "food processing". Now, the question is, does "food processing" really exist or we're trying to create a definition of something just for the sake of it? It's the same for consciousness. To me there's no "consciousness", just a number of interconnected yet separate processes in our brain which we love to call "consciousness".

I fail to see how "consciousness" as a term can be helpful in advancing the science of the brain.

While some people insist "consciousness" exists, let me remind everyone about æther - many physicists before Maxwell believed it was real. It was proven not to exist.

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    Maybe, maybe not... See Consciousness and The Neuroscience of Consciousness Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 11:01
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    It is not clear what the answerable question for SE is, open discussions are off-topic. One can have free will without consciousness and vice versa, see Does having free will presuppose consciousness, can philosophical zombies have it?. Because of that, what people can express "rationally" has little bearing on whether they actually have free will or not. But the strongest argument for irreducibility of consciousness is the hard problem, which has nothing to do with free will.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 14:41
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    You can touch the brain, without the brain you cease to exist, while "consciousness" being a loosely defined term looks like a superstructure seemingly for the sake of vapid philosophical debates. It would be great if you listed the issues which could be solved if we defined consciousness, proved it exists and discovered its laws. I don't see anything at all. Psychology, neurophysiology and neurology are doing just fine without consciousness. Gravity: few books, it's well defined, its laws are known, it has application (GPS). Consciousness: hundreds of books which don't advance science at all. Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 16:26
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    If we restricted ourselves to well-defined things how would we study what we have not fully understood yet? Gravity was not defined at all until a few centuries ago, and quantum gravity is still not well-defined. "Consciousness" can be experienced through introspection just like brain through touch or sight, and psychology and neuroscience talk about it constantly. Phenomena reported from introspection would have to be studied and explained no matter what label is used to refer to them, just as those from perception, and regardless of what we can define today. Advancement of science takes time
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 20:41
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    People can mistake what they experience, but they do experience it nonetheless, and we study it, hallucinations and the rest. Moreover, everything science studies is emergent, even "fundamental forces" are emergent on strings or something else we don't know yet. Emergent phenomena have their own laws and properties that "fundamental" ones do not help much with. Even beyond that, desks and chairs, life, health, beauty, virtue are all emergent and vaguely defined concepts that science touches only narrowly if at all, but they are used commonly. Science is not the only use people make of concepts
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 18:54

5 Answers 5


Medical definition Google search

It all depends how much you wish to complicate the issue, and argue where consciousness begins.

If your definition of consciousness is taken from the medical definition straight from the dictionary, then it really is quite simply the difference between one being awake, and asleep, or knocked out, or dead.

the state of being aware of and responsive to one's surroundings.

Therefore, from this very simplistic point of view it is extremely easy to establish whether someone is medically conscious or unconscious, and the difference between a conscious person and an unconscious person would certainly appear real to any conscious person looking at the subject, and therefore, it would be best to consider that the state does in fact exist.

  • This is a medical definition. I'm talking the consciousness as defined by modern philosophers. Being conscious doesn't mean you have consciousness. Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 15:17
  • @Artem S. Tashkinov There is no overall consensus by which all philosophers agree. The medical definition will be fine for some philosophers.. Also different levels of consciousness could be covered already by levels of intelligence. Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 15:23
  • The medical definition is quite simple really and has very little to do with the things philosophy bestows to the word. Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 15:41
  • At least he is providing a clear definition. How on earth do you expect us to answer about the existence of something you don't define ?
    – armand
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 12:50

The complaint that "one can't define it" is not an argument against the existence of a phenomenon. Philosophy IS the collection of subjects that we do not understand well enough to be their own specialty fields, hence most terms, subjects, and fields in philosophy intrinsically are difficult to arrive at full consensus on definitions and methodologies of investigation.

Consciousness is an observed phenomena. It includes an essential component of internal awareness. As experienced in people, it has a variety of features and functions. These include CONTRADICTORY features and functions, such as an integrative feature, and an experience of unity of consciousness, yet demonstrated discontinuities in experience, and multiplicity of experience and recollection. The predictive function using world-modeling and hypothesis testing in a virtual space, and the analytical processing function where we linearly think through a problem stepwise, both COULD be done unconsciously (we have created unconscious machines to do both), but happen to be conscious in humans.

The observation, compilation, and characterization of our consciousness is not something that lends itself to a "definitional" approach that is characteristic of analytic philosophy. Instead, it is a field that lends itself to an empirical and pragmatic approach -- basically following the first few stages of the scientific process, which involve exploration and characterization of a field of study, followed by speculation and tuning of postulations about that field. A number of researchers have attempted the next steps, which are more formal hypothesis forming and testing, which needs to happen for a field to separate off out of philosophy, but so far without any consensus on their success.

The evolutionary role of consciousness seems to be to make free will choices. This is not refuted by the observation that aspects of our brains make those choices before we are aware of them. It is useful to spell out the assumptions behind the invalid claim that they show prior brain determinism over mind. Those assumptions include the belief that there is ONLY ONE such prior decision! Daniel Dennett has proposed a "multiple drafts" model of brain function, in which our brains perform multiple parallel hypothesis models, EACH of which we start preparing to implement, and there is a fair amount of evidence for this model's validity. ONE draft then comes to dominate over the others, and harnesses the entire brain to implement its course of action. The timing of a "first preparation" is what the brain readiness studies looked at, and in a multiple drafts model, this MUST occur before the collapse to one implementation. Dennett himself denies the existence of a decider, but use of his model, and the association of the collapse to one implementation as the point of "conscious decision", is entirely consistent with the lab data, and consciousness decision being causal.

Note, the modular/tuned evolutionary nature of the mind is only compatible with the mind being causal. This is the argument against epiphenomenalism made by William James, and it is equally effective against the Identity Theory more recently favored by materialists.

This problem, that the mind is tuned to be causal, but if matter were causal on its own, then evolution would not have bothered with a mind (and if it did, our mind activities would be unrelated to what we actually do), is the core of the "Hard Problem of Consciousness". If reductive materialism or functionalism were true, then we SHOULD NOT have an evolved/tuned consciousness. You yourself make this point -- in a materialist reductionist worldview, the mind doesn't matter. Yet, evolutionarily, it clearly does.

Some determined materialists have rejected the existence of consciousness despite the observations. This POV is called Delusionism, and its leading advocate is Daniel Dennett. Dennett is a subtle and cagey philosopher, who often seeks to persuade indirectly rather than overtly, so the rationale for delusionism is not clearly articulated by him. The clearest justification for it is found in Susan Blackmore's A Very Short Introduction to Consciousness. She spells out a belief that materialism is absolutely demonstrated by physics, then identifies a series of laboratory tests that show that consciousness cannot be a purely materialist product of our brains. She then concludes, since consciousness cannot be material, but if it exists it must be, that consciousness cannot exist.

Blackmore's rejection of dualism does not actually cite the physics she asserts to be constraining. In his essay for The Myth of the Afterlife, Augustine cites two physicists who refute the conservation of energy argument made by most materialist philosophers against dualism. Papineau's The Rise of Physicalism essay notes that dualism is not actually refuted by any aspect of science, it was instead widely abandoned when biochemical reductionism proved to be so much more useful in characterizing cellular life. The limits to reductionism that have lead science to abandon the Unity of Science programme, bring even Papineau's "utility" rationale into question. There is also at least one alternatives that Blackmore does not consider, that of causally independent emergence, which is what Karl Popper advocated for (See The Self and Its Brain).

  • I love your answer however my question is more about how we are trying to create an entity which is not there. To give you an analogy, you can call swallowing food, digesting, absorbing nutrients and then defecating some word, say, "food processing". Now the question is, does "food processing" really exist or we're trying to create a definition of something just for the sake of it? It's the same for consciousness. To me there's no "consciousness", just a number of interconnected yet separate processes in our brain which we love to "consciousness". Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 9:46
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    @Artem, here is a boulder all covered with a mesh of cracks (and they form a visually peculiar character). My Q. to you: do the cracks exist? If yes are they an entity? The rock exists and is an entity (bodily), but what about a fissure of the rock's body?
    – ttnphns
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 14:19
  • @ArtemS.Tashkinov - I follow Popper's pragmatic empirical approach, & treat the objects we postulate, and which prove to be highly useful working hypotheses, as if they are "real". This is the principle of indirect realism, and it is how science works. The Theory Of Mind is developed in almost all of us humans during toddlerhood, and is highly useful. Many animals also appear to operate off theories of mind. If postulating that OTHER CREATURES and PEOPLE have minds is so useful as to be an evolved trait, why question that we have minds, when we can even experience them? Seems pointless.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 16:21
  • @ttnphns -- and Artem. Is it possible that Artem is asking about ESSENCES?? The boulder may not meet his criteria of "real" either. It has no essence, it is a bundle. Remove and replace bits of it, and one can still say it is a boulder, but it is not THE boulder, as there is no such thing. The Ship of Theseus thought problem highlights this nature of many macro objects -- replace all the wood, board by board, and once can still call the resulting ship the Ship of Theseus. But reassemble the replaced boards, that too is the Ship of Theseus. We would have two. What if we left a board out?
    – Dcleve
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 16:28
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    @ArtemS.Tashkinov: Three things: Firstly, you seem to imply an absolutist and eternalist view on ontology. That is quite outdated. Secondly, as long as people use handwavium when it comes to the transition from matter to mind, ie. cannot explain the emergence of qualia, stating that all there is are physical entities is superstitious. Thirdly, if we take your argument on composite processes/entities not existing seriously, brains do not exist as well, nor do neurons. Only forms of energy in different distributions. Thus, your argument lacks coherence and soundness.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:16

There are several very interesting elements in your question, and I'll try to address them to the best of my abilities.

  1. The existence of human subjectivity is for me beyond denial, regardless of the broader metaphysical position that one might adopt (dualism, physicalism, panpsychism...). Now, does it really exist ? Well, given that the perception of oneself as an acting agent is ineluctable (or as the Germans would say "unhintergehbar" (behind which we cannot go)) and anterior to nearly everything else in one's relationship to the world, I am tempted to say yes. Contrary to aether, even if consciousness (and the meta-problem of consciousness) were given a perfect scientific explanation (something we are, from my perspective, rather far from achieving -if it is possible), one's perception would not change. Consciousness cannot be eliminated (unlike what Patricia and Paul Churchland think), and mental states would not disappear. I doubt that we could teach our children to communicate with us in terms of neuronal patterns. Consciousness is irreducible and therefore real. There cannot be an illusion of consciousness, because thinking one is conscious is precisely being conscious.

  2. Let's now discuss free will. I am rather appalled when scientists go arround telling people that "free will doesn't exist because (roughly) : (1) free will is a conscious perception

    (2) consciousness is a product of the brain

    (3) the brain is physical

    (4) physical processes are deterministic

    (5) It follows from (1) (2) (3) that free will must be physical, which leads to a contradiction because of (5) therefore free will does not exist."

    I will not discuss (2), because this reasoning is done in a physicalist framework. However, I would like to start by quoting Wittgenstein, because I feel that the problem with this reasoning is (4), or rather the way it is used.

    (Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, proposition 5.1361) : "The events of the future cannot be inferred from those of the present." and "Superstition is the belief in the causal nexus."

    Later (Propositions 6.37, 6.371 and 6.362) "A necessity for one thing to happen because another has happened does not exist. There is only logical necessity. At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena. So people stop short at natural laws as at something unassailable, as did the ancients at God and Fate. And they both are right and wrong. But the ancients were clearer, in so far as they recognized one clear conclusion, whereas in the modern system it should appear as though everything were explained."

I tend to agree with that. Physical processes are indeed deterministic, but one runs into numerous problems if one conflates this with absolute determinism, because the laws of nature, as such, do not give us knowledge about the meaning of the World, or what Heidegger would call the truth of Being (roughly, the answer to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing ? ").

That being said, one could be tempted (as people like Carnap were) to dismiss these considerations and to deem them nonsensical, thus deciding that science is the only provider of meaningful insight. However, this decision isn't itself scientific, so it is in a way self-refuting.

  1. Your use of the verb "computing" is also rather problematic, which (if I understand it correctly) implies a computationalist theory of mind, because computationalism has serious problems (for example, see Chinese Room experiment, and this paper :https://philpapers.org/rec/BISDWP-2 by John Mark Bishop)

Yes, both consciousness and free will exist, but not automatically. You can only have freedom if you know your options, if you can tell what’s possible from what isn’t. That, in turn is only possible if you have a comprehensive understanding of yourself, the world you live in... everything <== that’s the necessary condition for consciousness as a conscious choice.

To put it simply, to be conscious you must know what you are doing.

  • I fail to see how consciousness is required to exist from your answer and why it's there at all. And so is free will. I may as well have none of them and have this conversation with you. Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 19:20
  • @ArtemS.Tashkinov > "I may as well have none of them and have this conversation with you" -- well, you said it yourself. And I understand how it sounds, but ask yourself first -- what is the reason for human suffering? Why the history of "civilization" is filled with violence, oppression, wars, even though none of it can be justified rationally? Indeed, how can we hope to live meaningful and happy lives if 3,000 years later we are still debating the nature of rationality, the meaning of truth -- even the meaning of meaning?.. Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 5:02
  • even though none of it can be justified rationally - actually our entire history is quite logical and rational. It's a war for survival and pretty much all forms of life are engaged in it - not just human beings. Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 9:41
  • Really? OK, let's use a well-known example -- why we had to kill 50 million people during WWII? What did we learn from that experience that we didn't know already? What was the rationale behind the Holocaust? Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 17:38
  • @ArtemS.Tashkinov -- just to clarify, I didn't say consciousness doesn't exist... most of us, however, are lacking it Commented Feb 27, 2021 at 7:07

You probably often hear laypeople say "In theory... but...", "Ideally...but...". While a machine or computer code will never have such semantic languages, at least for now. This is a sign (not proof) why many non-materialists believe its independent ontological existence, some idealists even will go further and argue that, since math (a perfect circle in Platonic ideal form world, but on earth you can never find such a perfect circle, meaning a circle does not exist on earth at all) can only be conceived in conscious mind, and modern science are all based on math, materials may be just reflections of some conscious computation in a deep metaphysical sense, such as fundamental particles which are just highly curved and structured quantum fields as described in standard model. In a word, an idea can only be born in an ideal consciousness.

Finally, consciousness may not be the only property of an intelligent mind, a mind can also have sub-consciousness (apperception, the so-called 8th consciousness, ālaya-vijñāna in Eastern philosophies and religious factions), which like the dark-matter, may be much much more compared with normal consciousness. It's also the source where Platonists argue the mind is not like a blank paper with experiences filled in later after one is born, it may alternatively just need to "remember" or "invoke" all its activities from its sub-consciousness database. Mind actually never lacks any wealth with this philosophy...

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