“What is consciousness?” The age old question dating back as far as Socrates (and probably before him), to Descartes, and to modern neuroscientists, philosophers, psychologists, physicists, and the myriad of disciplines in the world of academia. Even at the individual level, everyone has questioned their existence, wondering who “I” am, how “I” fit into all of this, why do “I” exist. For something so integral as part of our being, it’s ironic how we can’t explain it. At this point, some might say, “I guess it’s all a part of the soul then, science might as well never be able to explain such supernatural phenomena. Stop wasting your time with fruitless endeavors.” And to those people I say, “Hold on just for a few minutes, read this article and then tell me that writing this was a complete waste of time”.
The act of what you’re doing right now, what you’re experiencing, from the rolling of your eyes at my last statement, to the thoughts running through your mind, to your brain processing these words, to the feel of your fingers as you scroll through this article. These feelings, or experiences as what modern scientists call them, are your consciousness. That feeling of “you”, your presence of simply being, there. You can’t very well tell if this article was written by someone real, or whether your surroundings are truly as they appear, or if you’re actually hooked up to a machine somewhere and all these experiences are being fed to you. But, you can feel that “you” are essentially the one thing that you know to be there. You might be familiar with certain philosophers that have expressed this thought, Descartes “Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)”; Saint Augustine of Hippo with “Si fallor sum (If I am mistaken, I exist)”; or Berkeley with “Esse est percipi (To be is to be perceived)”.
“Alright, so these philosophers have tried to define consciousness, but that still doesn’t explain where it is, or what it is exactly!”
If you had that thought, then that’s fantastic! You’re conscious and you can actively process these words and generate a response to it! Thankfully, many people have since asked these questions too, generating a community of people who aim to study consciousness. The phenomena of being conscious is very complex and whilst we might not really marvel at this feat, this continuous stream of consciousness is truly magical. We might experience consciousness as being one consistent unit, but it is actually the unification of many senses of “self”, such as the bodily self, perceptual self, volitional self, narrative self and even the social self. These experiences of what “self” is all happen at the same time, yet we only experience one unitary stream of it.
Naturally, this brings up the question of how consciousness arises, and whether consciousness is shared by all living things, or even if us humans (and others) have the same experience of consciousness, but more importantly, whether consciousness can be created. To answer these questions, the people studying the phenomena are mainly split between two theories of consciousness, the integrated information theory, and the global neuronal workspace theory. In simple terms, the proponents of the integrated information theory believe that consciousness is unique and belongs to the natural world, and just like mass and charge, consciousness has causal powers. What this theory suggests is that consciousness isn’t just an emergent property resulting from complex computational mechanisms, rather, it is an entity within itself that has to be imbued into a being for it to be “truly” conscious. On the other end, proponents of the global neuronal workspace theory believe that consciousness is just a consequence of complex machinery, and that if we could simply make something that was capable of performing very complex tasks, with intelligent systems, consciousness would simply arise from these interactions.
An interesting thought experiment was devised by John Searle in 1980 called the Chinese Room Thought Experiment, this is how the experiment goes. Imagine a man sitting in a locked room, he does not speak Chinese. In the room he is locked in, he sees a box of Chinese characters, along with a set of instructions on how to use these characters. Now, a Chinese speaker stands outside this room and passes on messages written in Chinese to this man through the slit under the door. Using the set of instructions and the box of Chinese characters, the man can reply to these messages despite not understanding Chinese at all. What Searle was trying to illustrate was that when a computer is able to generate a response, it might simply be operating on a set of computational instructions without truly understanding the output, rather than actively processing and generating a “true” thought.
In a Sci-Fi fantasy, we’d (maybe) like to imagine a world where computers and machines will be able to perform amazing feats, and with the emerging fields of artificial intelligence, these questions become increasingly relevant to the future of our kind. As we begin to progress into the technological singularity, we really do need to stop and think about what constitutes a “us”, and what of our experiences makes us “human”. To what end are we aiming for when we aim for progress, what will be the price to pay if we do make it to a world of computers and simulations? Even if we could theoretically create an artificial simulation of our thoughts and experiences, say we upload our brains to a cloud somewhere, we are only left to wonder whether those simulations will still have the essence of an “I”, whether the mechanistic operations of these machinery will signify a conscious being, or whether anyone is home in a house that manages to run itself.
Writers Additional Comments
In his book titled “The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Everywhere But Can’t Be Computed”, Christof Koch talks about consciousness from the perspective of the integrated information theory. It was published recently this year and Koch manages to provide a convincing account without overcomplicating the subject with scientific jargon. If you’d like to read more the subject of consciousness, this is a good introductory book to get you started. Some books by Daniel Denett might also be a good place to start.