Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


What is consciousness ?
Shantal Surles


Summary by Jonathan Bower

What is consciousness ?

Reading: Philosophy and Science for Everyone, Ch. 7, 6
                 Cosmic Heritage Ch. 14, 15, 16;
                 3 Big Bangs p. 66, 89, 92;
                  Prinz, W., Open minds: the social making of agency and intentionality; Ch. 1

Consciousness is perhaps the most profound and pervasive mystery that humankind has tried to unfold. Shantel Surles led a discussion uncovering the question: what is consciousness? While it is clear that coming to a definitive conclusion as to what consciousness “is” is beyond the scope of this course, through discussion we may learn more about what this question actually means. Shantel began with consciousness as defined in Cosmic Heritage by Peter Shaver.

“Consciousness is the totality of our sensations, emotions, memories, values, tastes, curiosities, thoughts, opinions, beliefs, ideas, decisions, and of course self awareness.”
As Shaver goes on to discuss, this definition leads consciousness to be an entirely private entity. There is no way to know that two people's experience, whether it be taste or touch, actually are perceived remotely similarly by the two people. In fact Lauren Maurice pointed out that there is no real way to actually know with complete certainty that any one else is even conscious at all, we only infer based on our own experience, that other people are feeling and thinking as well.

In order to have a cohesive discussion of consciousness there must be distinctions between the different meanings of the word “consciousness”. Shantel broke 'consciousness' down into five different meanings. The first was sentience, where a creature is receptive of its environment and that creature can interact with its environment intelligently. The second refers to wakefulness, where the creature is alert and awake. The third is higher order consciousness, in reference to the human ability to be self aware as a thinking subject. The fourth meaning is access consciousness, when one's thoughts can interact with other thoughts. The final meaning is phenomenal consciousness, which refers to the mental activity of subjective feeling, not simply data processing.

With these definitions one can see how animals have some form of consciousness. It is relatively simple to infer that any mammal is awake, and most would believe that dogs have some form of sentience, but it is doubtful that they are self aware. So how is it that humans as physical beings have phenomenal consciousness, the ability to produce conscious feelings?

Shantel referred to this as “the hard problem” and broke it down further into two questions:
• Why do we have conscious experience?
• Why do we have the particular conscious experience that we do?
These questions are referred to as hard problems in consciousness. There is inherent subjectivity to our internal experience, so there is no real or effective way to gather data about these questions. The “easy” question refers to the study of the mechanisms of the brain, using objective science, MRI scans and biopsies for example. Now saying that neuroscience is the “easy” question, when referring to consciousness, really exemplifies the magnitude of the difficulty of these questions. Lauren made the point that finding the language to relate “conscious experience” to one another is virtually impossible because so much of the human experience is so visceral. To wrap up this point, Randy made reference to a quote by physicist Erwin Schrödinger:

“Although I think that life may be the result of an accident, I do not think that of consciousness. Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”
So where does this leave us in terms of answering the hard problems? Professor deVries' responded to Randy's reference by asking if Schrödinger meant “consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms......yet”. Now from the entirety of Schrödinger's quote (which we did not have at the time) it is apparent that he meant to say “consciousness is fundamental” but deVries' question is valid. Currently there is no way to explain first person conscious experience in terms of a third person study, but that does not mean that such a study could not exist in the future. Unfortunately, at this point in time, the question goes unanswered and a belief that consciousness can or cannot be explained through reductive methods will have to be taken on some amount of faith.

We may not be able to explain exactly what gives rise to consciousness, but science is very good at finding connections between individual experiences and the parts of the brain in which these experiences take place on an individual basis. It has been observed that envisioning yourself performing a task, such as playing a sport, can set off neurons in predictable ways. This does not mean that it is possible to isolate the part of the brain that is used to envision sports. What this does mean is that our brains tend to respond consistently to certain stimuli.

One student made the point to say that knowledge of how the brain works does not necessarily give information on the experience itself. This brought us to the thought experiment of  “Mary the color scientist”. Mary lives her entire life in a black and white room, during which time she studies the color red at length. She has books regarding the wavelength of the color red, what chemicals and elements can be compounded to create red dye, any quantifiable information regarding the color red and its identification. Finally after nothing else can be learned about the color red, Mary is allowed to leave the black and white room and she sees a rose for the first time and Ah ha! She learns something new.

Most of the class interpreted the story about Mary as giving validity to the claim that the first person perspective can be used to collect legitimate information. After all, if she learned something new by experiencing the color red, then the physical facts cannot be all of the facts. DeVries rebutted that she was not learning new information, because an experience is not a fact, but what she learned was a new way of discerning the color red. Rather than reading her spectroscopic data, she can discern the color red from its counterparts first hand. The class generally agreed with this statement, but still felt that the experience of the color red was valuable, even if it only is valid to Mary herself.

So we do not know why consciousness exists, or how it came to be, or even if conscious perceptions are valuable ways to view the world. The one thing each of us truly knows is that our consciousness exists and that we feel the things we feel. As Descartes put it, “I think therefore I am”. Professor Davis pointed out that experience is the one thing we cannot doubt. We can know that we are having these experiences, hallucinations prove that the sources of these experiences are not always legitimate.

As for the source there are no answers, no complete theories that can explain what gives rise to humankind's higher order consciousness. The idea that consciousness arises from some inherent state of matter seems fantastical when you think that we are essentially lumps of carbon thinking about how a lump of carbon would come to think at all. The search for these answers are fundamentally similar to that of cosmology. We must view the universe around us not as outside observers looking in, but as part of the universe examining itself. We make observations of consciousness from our own conscious position. Much like planets just outside each other's observable universe, we as humans can see the same world as all of the people around us, but we will never truly be able to see it from each other's perspective.