What is Consciousness?
Consciousness is the aspect of the mind that is inextricably difficult to grasp. The first issue is one of description: what is consciousness, and what are its features, categories, and functions? Secondly, how does consciousness come to exist–how did it evolve? Is it possible to model consciousness and how do we do so?
The English word conscious is derived from the Latin conscius, or con (“together”, “with”) and scire, scio (“to know”). While sentience is a component of consciousness, the capacity for a being to possess sensation and some degree of intelligence is not the whole picture. Many living creatures exhibit some degree of sentience; thus we must form a taxonomy of mind–the possibility of animal consciousness, and its relation and similarity to human consciousness is a topic that we will no doubt discuss on the Quale. But first, strictly speaking for humans, what are the other features of consciousness? These features include a unity of consciousness, a continuity, phenomenal and subjective aspects, and an organization around a self-perspective.
In considering the features of consciousness, it may be enlightening (or more confusing) to delineate how theories of consciousness have developed from 17th century philosophy to modern scientific and philosophical notions. Often when we speak about consciousness, we imply a similar albeit distinct notion of self-consciousness–not merely an awareness of external stimuli but an awareness of oneself and one’s internal thoughts, emotions, reflections, and so forth. G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716) called this notion apperception, “which is consciousness, or the reflective knowledge of this internal state, something not given to all souls, nor at all times to a given soul.”1 Leibniz distinguished apperception from perception, as perception is the representation of external things but consciousness implies a reflective, introspective capacity.
Leibniz is one of the first thinkers to have a distinct notion of consciousness. He presents the form of the mind as being representational, i.e. a perception of the external world is internally represented to a mind. Leibniz makes the claim that not all minds are conscious, and that conscious minds can alternate between states of consciousness. Leibniz discusses how we may be perceiving many things that we are not aware of–in other words, we are not conscious of many things unless it comes into a threshold of awareness. For instance, a perception of light or color of which we are aware is made up of many minute perceptions of which we are unaware; a noise which we perceive but do not attend to is brought within reach of our awareness by a tiny increase or addition.2 The idea of the unconscious part of the mind was first articulated here.
While Descartes, Spinoza, and particularly Leibniz were intellectual giants who gave considerable accounts of consciousness, there is perhaps no thinker with a deeper and broader influence in this area than Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He laid the foundation for contemporary cognitive science by establishing the capacities and functions of the mind in relation to sense experience and all knowledge.3 Throughout his work he identified the major features of perception, thought, and consciousness. From Leibniz, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) used the term apperception in a similar manner to discuss not only the self but how all of our cognitions are tied together.
Kant’s notion here is that the unity of consciousness is necessary for there to be subsequent conscious experiences that one relates to one’s past experiences. One goes through life with memories and knowledge of the past, and we can delineate a certain “self.” In other
words, all our conscious experiences seem to be bundled together–and we know that in some way this constitutes our self. Any singular experience of mine can only have its contextual content because it resides within the framework of a unity of consciousness. This allows me to introspect to some degree, to reflect on the past, to think of myself in prior terms and therefore plan for the future. All my past, present and future cognitions and experiences are tied together.
Modern accounts of consciousness also discuss the subjective qualities of experience. Qualia are not to be confused with general perception, however. Qualia are “what it is like” characteristics that occur in what Ned Block calls phenomenal consciousness. This would be something akin to the notion of “what is it like to be a bat,” as you cannot come to know the experience of being a bat and the associated phenomenal instantiations of qualia. Block proposes two types of consciousness, one being phenomenal and the other being what he calls access consciousness. The latter has to do with general cognitive thoughts, but also including qualia, that an individual may utilize in language, reasoning and other functions.
What is consciousness? The question still stands. However, one could posit that the totality of consciousness is simply the set that contains a plethora of sub-sets. Consciousness could eventually be explained, in this way, if we had a clear empirical grasp on the fundamental principles of how these sub-sets and subsystems function. In building an explanatory account of consciousness, neuroscientists attempt to understand how consciousness depends upon various non-conscious, physical components.
1 Leibniz, G. W. (n.d.). Discourse on metaphysics and other writings: Discourse on metaphysics, The Principles of Nature and of Grace, the monadology (R. Latta & P. Loptson, Trans.; G. R. Montgomery, Ed.). From “Principles of Nature and Grace” §4, AG 208
2 Leibniz, G. W. New Essays on Human Understanding, 133-4 [?])
3 Brook, A. (2004). Kant’s View of the Mind and Consciousness of Self. Retrieved May 24, 2016. from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-mind/