Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Consciousness Lead: Amy Conroy


Summary by Natalie Magnatta

Consciousness: The Hard Problem/In Search of the Self

On April 24, our class embarked upon the incredible, if not inconceivable, task of trying to understand our consciousness. Amy set the stage for the discussion by providing a definition of consciousness as stated by the Merriam Webster Dictionary.

        1 a : the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself
           b : the state or fact of being conscious of an external object, state, or fact
        2 : the state of being characterized by sensation, emotion, volition, and thought : MIND
        3 : the totality of conscious states of an individual
        4 : the normal state of conscious life <regained consciousness>
        5 : the upper level of mental life of which the person is aware as contrasted with unconscious processes

Although the definition provided a starting point to the discussion, with an emphasis on the statements of “being aware, especially of something within oneself and mind”, Merriam Webster can hardly be said to broaden our understanding of the subject. What is it to be aware? And what exactly is it inside ourselves that we should be aware of? What is the mind and how exactly does it relate to our consciousness? And as professor deVries pointed out, where does the purely factual, empirical question of consciousness end and the normative, value-based dimension of the question begin?

Perhaps what is needed to better grasp the concept are some examples. Following the fifth section of the definition above, Amy presented three facets, which can represent consciousness: visual consciousness, consciousness of pain and consciousness in dreams. These three facets correspond to three very different aspects of consciousness, one being sensory, one sensational and the last representing a peculiar context of consciousness. These three varying consciousnesses were perhaps presented in hopes of creating a well-rounded analysis of the subject. In terms of visual and pain consciousness, we were presented with a duality: visual consciousness versus not seeing, and conscious pain versus the use of anesthetics. In discussing, some interesting points were brought up in regards to pain: the question ‘how does physical pain differ from mental pain?’ followed by Professor deVries’ inquiry ‘what is pain?’ Scientifically, pain can be associated with neurological firing, but really how does that equal pain? The third facet presented was that of dreams. Are we conscious during dreams? It was argued that since there is brain activity that could indicate consciousness. Also, dreams often become a part of our memory just as any conscious daytime activity would. We have the capability to actively participate in our dreams, and sometimes even control what is happening. Another means of analyzing consciousness is through comparisons of objective, or psychological and physical aspects, and subjective, or one’s own personal experience.

Next Amy presented the class with some concrete representations to help make us more aware of consciousness. Breathing, which is normally performed by the body unconsciously, can very easily be transformed into a conscious, and even deliberate, action. A practice in gaining insight into subjective consciousness was demonstrated with an exercise proposed by the American philosopher, Thomas Nagel. The question ‘what is it like to be a bat?’ touches upon the objectivity/subjectivity of consciousness by emphasizing the privacy of the experience, and the inaccessbibility of another’s conscious experience. We can imagine what bats do, but we cannot imagine what they really feel or what exactly they are experiencing. Sam interjected that this situation is similar to that of understanding an Other. Another example for understanding the idea of subjective consciousness was put into the context of humans. Do any two people see the same colors? Are we capable of understanding the colors another person sees? With these statements, the question arose in my mind of consciousness in relation to perception: Is consciousness the same as perception? Or perhaps consciousness is the experience of perception?

After provoking our thoughts on consciousness, the presentation introduced different popular theories on consciousness. Four principal theories were presented, Dualism, Materialism, Mysterian, and Epiphenomenalism, and discussions of each followed, with the main focus on Dualism and Materialism.

The theory of Dualism believes that mind (or soul) and body are separate. It states that to be is to be perceived and that nothing exists if it can’t be perceived. Many questions originated from this theory. Can minds interact, or does each mind exist in its own separate world? This closely relates to a monistic theory called Idealism, which was not mentioned by Amy. This theory believes that not only are the mind and body separate, but also only the mind and consciousness are real. According to Berkeley, a philosopher linked with Idealism, all minds are individual, but God keeps them in sync. In reality, God was used as an answer to all questions that arose from Dualism. Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia asked, ‘How do different realms interact?’ or rather ‘How do the mind and the physical brain interact?’ The dualistic answer was that they do not interact, since mind and body are separate; God is viewed as the “stage manager”, coordinating all actions and “interactions”.

Materialism was presented next. In complete contradiction to dualism, it is the belief of materialists that mind, consciousness and matter (body) exist as one. Consciousness is actually the result of the physical world. The analogy of hardware and software was given to better understand Materialist thought. The physical brain is the hardware and the mind, or consciousness, is the software. The hardware must exist in order for the software to have a physical place to run from and software is what makes the hardware capable of functioning. As with Dualism, this theory prompted many questions. Can any two people share the same software; is it possible to share a consciousness? One answer was that even if software is shared, it does not necessarily follow that the same files will be created. That is to say, even if two people think the same (if they have somehow been raised the same way and shared all the same experiences), it cannot be concluded that their consciousness will be identical. After all, they would necessarily have different points of view on the world, and thus would have at least slightly different experiences.

The Mysterian and Epiphenomenalist theories were then slightly touched upon. Mysterians believe that consciousness is too complex to understand, a view point which will not aide us in our quest for understanding, except maybe to reinforce the idea that different people have different consciousnesses, or at least different perceptions of consciousness. Epiphenomenalism asserts that the mental consciousness is attributed purely to the physical brain processes. They do not work together and our minds do not play a significant role, but rather our physical body forms our consciousness. Mental events are caused by the physical events in the brain, but in turn have no effects on the physical aspect. This is illustrated by a locomotive engine (the physical) that produces steam (the mental), and yet the steam has no effect on the engine after it has been created.

After having been presented with so many different theories of consciousness, we continued to wonder, now with even more curiosity, ‘What exactly is consciousness?’ Who, or what, is conscious? Are rocks or bacteria? Although it is far-fetched, we really have no way of scientifically testing. Are plants? They respond to light and touch; is that not a response to an external object or state? What about animals? They have been shown to have intelligence, and seem to have feelings and display the capability for memory. Is brain activity enough to imply consciousness? Unlikely. How about computers? Professor Moebius raised the question of Data on Star Trek. Although a fictional character, with all the artificial intelligence that is being developed, are we perhaps on the brink of developing conscious computers? The question of human consciousness was even raised. Can people who are in a coma, or who suffer from severe brain trauma, still be considered conscious?

“The only clue we have to the presence or absence or consciousness is how that being behaves” is the only response we were given to all these questions. However, from this arises more questions, ‘Is there outwardly noticeable evidence of consciousness?’ and ‘What is this evidence?’

Language use was one idea that was touched upon as a possible proof; however, it brought us back to the discussion of animals having consciousness. It was believed by a few in the class that animals communicate through their own language; animal communication is a growing field in science today. Does this prove that animals are conscious? Others in the class disagreed with this idea, stating that language is not analogous with communication systems, which is truly how animals communicate; they do not have a true language of their own. So perhaps consciousness is tied to the capacity for language. If this is the case, I wonder what effect different languages have on the perception of consciousness.

Throughout the course of the class, we were presented with many definitions, ideas, and popular theories of what is consciousness; however, from each new concept that was introduced surged even more questions. The class was a lesson on being aware of all the possibilities of perceptions that exist in regards to consciousness. We by no means reached any conclusion at the end of two hours. If anything, we raised more questions, which may be all that really can be done when attempting to understand that which is fundamental for life as we humans know it.