Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Consciousness Lead: Amy Conroy


Summary by Chris Rothschild

Consciousness: The Hard Problem/In Search of the Self

The presentation began with at an attempt to define consciousness. The definition as seen in the Merriam Webster Dictionary was shown as:

        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

While this definition was inadequate for the purposes of the class’s discussion, definitions 1a, 5, and later 2 were useful as starting points for more in depth discovery.

To better illustrate exactly what is meant by conscious behavior, Amy cited breathing as an act that is usually carried out sub-consciously, but can be controlled by conscious thought. Amy then introduced three forms of consciousness: visual consciousness, perception to pain, and dreams. Visual consciousness was discussed briefly as input to a conscious thing, pain as a response (physical or mental), and dreams as a construct of a conscious mind. It was less definitive as to whether a person dreaming was conscious at the time of the dream.

With a general understanding of what is meant by consciousness, the group moved on to evaluate the consciousness of other things, which posed a problem. The way the class understood and defined consciousness was very subjective; therefore without actually being the thing evaluated, it becomes difficult to detect it. The question “What is it like to be a bat?” as asked by American philosopher Thomas Nagel was posed to the class illustrating this problem. Although people can make inferences as to what a bat, sees, feels, or experiences, it is impossible to actually know what it is like to be a bat and therefore difficult to determine the extent of its consciousness. Sam observed this problem was analogous to the difference between the “self” and the “other” discussed in a previous class. While some people would say that animals are conscious beings, Professor Davis pointed out that Descartes would have considered them non-thinking machines and non-conscious. Color perception was discussed to show the difficulty in describing something so closely tied to personal experience. It was said that blue could be perceived by two people differently and it would be very difficult to discover that the two observers did not see the same “blue”. Consciousness is intimately tied to one’s own “inner” experience and is therefore difficult to define or recognize in some cases.

Amy then presented several theories on the function of consciousness. The first, which we had touched upon in a previous class, was is the idea of Dualism. Dualism is simply the thought that the mind and body are two separate entities working together. It was believed by Descartes that the mind and body were separate and intersected through the pineal gland or “seat of the soul”.

The second theory discussed was Idealism, a concept fathered by George Berkeley. Bishop Berkeley believed that only consciousness and realms (persons) were real, that all physical things were not real themselves but only the perceptions of them. Bishop Berkeley credited God as the omnipresent perceiver that kept all “physical things” intact in his model. Professor deVries pointed out the standard challenge to this idea: why would people come to have perceptions of physical things if they were, in fact, no such things?

The third and fourth theory were grouped together, as they both leave little room for the discovery of what consciousness is (our topic). Epiphenomenalism is the theory that consciousness is only a product of physiology, but with no consequence on the physical world. Mysterianism was, in my opinion, the most accurate view of consciousness. It is simply the idea that consciousness is too complicated for anyone to understand. That is, it is an inexplicable concept. While this theory may or may not be true, the class pressed on in an attempt to understand that which may or may not be understandable.

The fifth theory was that of Materialism, the theory that consciousness arises from the material world and that consciousness is the software for the material hardware. This theory raised a number of concerns, mainly regarding how all conscious things could be running the same “software” and not have the same characteristics (i.e. same morals, responses etc.). The class decided that the notion of software must be kept general, and that different hardware has different abilities. For example, Professor deVries explained that it could be reasoned that dogs have not developed morals because they lack a language to convey moralistic codes. Dogs are limited by their abilities and therefore do not develop the same level of consciousness that humans experience.

This brought about a discussion of levels of consciousness and how some organisms could be considered less conscious than others. The group tried to discern at what point something can be considered conscious and what qualities lead us to believe so. Rocks, bacteria, plants, and smaller animals were analyzed, and determined conscious or not without the expression of any criterion. Shortly after, it seemed that behavior was the only indicator of conscious thought. The way an organism behaves could indicate the presence or absence of conscious thought seemed to be the consensus. Reasoning and language seemed to be chief among those behaviors necessitating consciousness, but it was not considered that all conscious beings possess these things.

Dr. Moebius posed the question; if a Data (from Star Trek) had sat through this semester’s discussions and participated as he had, would it be considered conscious? Although many students were hesitant to attribute consciousness to a machine, it was determined that if the machine were formulating its own questions and answers, it would have to be conscious. If it were simply programmed with these things, it would be a model of consciousness. This type of behavior evaluation made special cases of comatose or mentally ill people difficult to categorize, although the inclination is to attribute consciousness to these people.

At the end of the class period, we had discussed several ways to detect and evaluate conscious character in things. However, none of these methods seemed to be reliable in all cases. At the end of the discussion, the theory that anything someone would worry about causing pain would be considered conscious by that person was mentioned. Although this concept was not fully developed, I did notice how the discussion came back to the idea of pain, one of the components of consciousness mentioned in the beginning of the class. It seemed at the conclusion of the class that consciousness was something that could be recognized in most cases, but escapes an exact definition.