The Nature of Consciousness
Consciousness is perception, which is the only kind of consciousness we or any other creature has. Physical existence is that existence organisms are directly conscious of, the world they see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. By perception is meant the seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting as well as interoception (the direct perception of internal states of the physical body).
Perceptual consciousness is an attribute of living organisms. It is the attribute of life that makes the additional attribute of consciousness possible in some organisms. Consciousness is not possible without the attribute life. There is no reason for or possibility of consciousness in a mere physical entity. Consciousness is what makes the behavior necessary, for those organisms that are conscious, to sustain themselves as the kind of organisms they are.
There are at least eight characteristics of conscious perception that demonstrate that consciousness, like life, is not a physical attribute: 1. Individual and Private 2. Continuity 3. Unity 4. Consciousness of Physical not Physical 5. Tasting is the Only Test 6. Pain 7. No Physical Description and 8. TV in an Empty Room.
1. Individual and Private
Consciousness in all other creatures except ourselves is implied, because every conscious organism has its own consciousness and no organism can be conscious of any other organism's consciousness.
While the privacy of consciousness is generally understood, it's significance to philosophy is not always apparent. It is because consciousness is experienced privately that its nature is frequently neglected. What we mean by "being conscious," the actual experience itself, can only be known individually. Anything in the physical world that can be perceived, can be perceived by anyone. No one can perceive your consciousness or my consciousness, as we experience it. Technically, we cannot even "perceive" our own consciousness. We do not know we are conscious by perceiving it, (seeing it, hearing it, feeling it, etc.), we know it, because we are conscious. We do not know we can see by seeing our seeing, we know we can see because we do.
Conscious organisms have only one consciousness and it is the same consciousness from moment to moment, day to day, and year to year. It is the same consciousness from the moment it becomes consciousness until the organisms dies. It is because consciousness is a characteristic of life, not the physical aspects of the organism, this is possible. Notice, that the physical characteristics of an organism can change. Hypothetically, all of the physical parts could be changed, but it would still be the same organism, because it would still be the same life process and the same consciousness. It is the life process that identifies the organism as a particular organism, not the physical components, and consciousness is an attribute of life.
Consciousness does not cease to exist when one sleeps, or when under an anesthetic, or when "knocked out" by a blow to the head. By analogy, in those cases, consciousness is like the life of a seed. A seed is a living thing, although it does not exhibit any of the usual characteristics of life externally; we say it is "dormant" because under proper conditions it will germinate and grow. If irradiated, or exposed to certain temperatures it "dies" and cannot be germinated.
Consciousness, during sleep or when anesthetized, is like the life of a seed, dormant, because when the anesthesia wears off or the hypothalamus is stimulated, consciousness revives. If consciousness truly ceases, however, nothing can revive it, and the individual who was that consciousness ceases to exist.
I Am My Consciousness
For human beings, one's consciousness is what is meant by "I." One remains the same person (individual or "I") no matter what other things change, because one's consciousness is always the same consciousness. However little one knows or how much one learns, no matter what changes there are to the physical aspects of one's body, no matter what one does or how long one lives, from moment to moment, day to day, and year to year, one is the same person, because it is the same consciousness. There is no physical aspect of one's being that cannot be changed that can change one's conscious identity, because one's conscious identity is one's consciousness itself.
From the moment one opens their eyes for the first time to the moment they close them for the last time, there is only one consciousness. One's existence as a person, their identity as a human being, is the human being's consciousness. If one's consciousness should cease, whatever happens to the body, the individual ceases to exist as a human being.
That identity which is one's consciousness, cannot be discovered or described by any physical attribute or any physical or biological action because consciousness is not a physical attribute—it is an attribute of life.
For any organism, there is only one consciousness and it is the same consciousness that perceives what is seen, tasted, heard, smelled, and felt. It is the same consciousness that feels the wheel of the car with the hands, the accelerator pedal with the foot, sees the light change from red to green, and hears the music on the radio all simultaneously. This aspect of consciousness is almost never recognized. It is one reason, for example, no computer or computer program will ever create consciousness. It would be impossible, at the physical level, to make all the discrete physical events required for detection of separate phenomena be a single phenomenon. Because consciousness is an aspect of life, however, which is not physical and not limited by physical attributes, such as discreteness, the same consciousness can be conscious of an indefinite number of things at the same time.
Furthermore, every individual is only one consciousness, one person, conscious of what one is thinking, perceiving (internally and externally), and what one is feeling emotionally, as well as conscious of all the other things one is aware of, simultaneously and continuously. There is only one consciousness.
To some extent one can determine what one will be conscious of by where they look and what they do, such as turning on or off a radio, or opening a book. In those cases, one is merely changing what there is available for one to be conscious of. But one can also focus the attention on some things one is conscious of and ignore some others, even though one never ceases to be conscious of everything available to consciousness at any time.
It would be impossible, at the physical level, to make all the discrete physical events required for detection of separate phenomena be a single event. What that means, is, there is no physical system which is able to detect sounds (microphones, for example) images (a video camera, for example), pressure and weight (a transponder system, for example) temperature (an electronic thermometer for example), movement (an electro-gyroscope for example) which can all be recognized in all its detail as a single event or process. The information that all these detection systems provide, at the physical level, must forever remain separated and discrete. The laws of physics and information theory, both determined by the principles that govern physical existence, exclude the possibility that this information can be integrated into a single thing or phenomenon, like one's consciousness. If one's consciousness were a phenomenon of the physical, it would not be a single thing, but a collection of separate and discrete things. At the physical level, the unity of consciousness is an impossibility.
Which Cell is Conscious?
It is not necessary to depend on physics or information theory to see the problem the unity of conscious is to the physicalist view. Consider vision. The optic nerve is actually a bundle of nerves, each carrying separate signals to the brain. They all terminate close to one another but at slightly different places at different cells. Many cells in the brain respond to these signals, at the physical level, "sight" consists of many interrelated but discrete events. If many different cells are involved in "seeing" how do the separate behaviors of each of those cells become integrated into a single phenomenon called "seeing."
Unless there is one "master consciousness cell" that is somehow fed perceptual information by all the other cells of the brain, there is not "one event" at the physical level, but a collection of many separate events that cannot be anything but separate physical events.
Consciousness is not only a single consciousness awareness of everything in the visual field, but simultaneously every thing that can be heard, or felt, or tasted, or smelled. At the physical level, all the discrete neurological events related to consciousness are discrete and separate and no physical method is possible that could integrate all these separate physical events into the single phenomena which is consciousness.
4. Consciousness of Physical not Physical
It is the private nature of consciousness that has been the source of many of philosophy's greatest difficulties. It is the source of all mystic ideas of the "soul" for example. It is very difficult to describe the nature of consciousness as it is consciously experienced and those philosophers who have recognized its significance have gone to great lengths to do so.
Consciousness, the actual experience, cannot be described in terms of any physical quality or attribute, because consciousness is not physical and cannot be attributed to any physical events or actions. Consciousness is an attribute of life, the process. It is to the life process itself that the physiological aspects of the neurological system of an organism presents the perceptual qualities of entities that can be detected by the nervous system to be perceived.
Consciousness and that which we are conscious of cannot be the same thing. The physical is that which we are conscious of (directly perceive), consciousness is directly perceiving (being conscious of) the physical. It is this fact that has led so many philosophers to posit some kind of dualism. The mistake is the assumption that consciousness is something separate from the physical attributes of an organism. But life is an attribute of a physical organism that makes it living, without which it would not be an organism, and consciousness is an attribute of those kinds of organisms that see, hear, feel, smell and taste, without which they would not be those kinds of organisms.
It is the physical aspects of an organism that make it possible for the neurological system to interact with the perceived physical world and make available to consciousness those attributes of the physical that can be perceived. There is no dualism involved in consciousness. Consciousness is a natural attribute of living organisms that cannot exist separate from the physical organisms it is the consciousness of, but is not itself physical or caused by the physical.
5. Tasting is the Only Test
Just as the nature of consciousness cannot be explained in physical terms neither can conscious perception itself. There is no way to determine from the physical characteristics of anything how it will taste, for example, or what any particular chemical will smell like. The only way to know what anything will taste or smell like is to actually taste or smell it.
This is the reason it is so difficult to explain what something tastes like to someone who has never tasted it. Unless it has ingredients that one has tasted before, it is, in fact, impossible to describe the taste of a thing.
This is true of all the perceptual qualities. It is the reason why no description of sound can make a deaf person know what sound "sounds" like, and why no explanation can make a blind person know what anything "looks" like. Yet, it is quite possible to explain all the physical and technical aspects of sound to a deaf person and of light to a blind person.
The reason there is no physical explanation for the conscious experience of taste, or seeing, or hearing, is because perception is not a physical phenomenon, it is a living phenomenon.
[NOTE: The so-called subjectivity of consciousness problem suggested by some philosophers is mistaken. The spurious argument goes, "If it is only possible to know what is perceived by actually perceiving it, it is a purely subjective experience and it is impossible to know if that experience reflects reality or not." The argument is baseless. It is what is consciously perceived that is reality. It as the world as it is perceived that all the sciences study, that all technology uses, and that we live in and enjoy. The only thing, "subjective" about consciousness is that it is one's own consciousness by which one perceives the physical world. If human beings were not directly conscious of the real physical world, there would be no way to know it. It is the directly perceived world against which all tests of scientific principles are made.]
Unlike sound, or color, or temperature which are physical attributes of physical entities which can be directly perceived, there is no corresponding physical attribute of any physical entity that is pain. Since all perception is perception of the physical, in the case of pain it is not a physical attribute that is perceived but a physical state of an organism. There is no such thing as pain independent of a physical organism.
A broken bone is, to consciousness, extremely painful, but a broken bone, as a physical phenomenon, in terms of physics, has no attribute which can be called pain. No X-ray, physical examination, or analysis of any kind will find any attribute about a broken bone which can be called pain. The pain associated with a broken bone exists only in the context of a living organism and only to consciousness. Pain exists and is real, it is an indication of a real physical state in a biological context, but does not itself exist physically, and has no physical attributes or explanation.
There is another aspect of pain that helps illustrate what consciousness is. When I feel pain, I generally react to that feeling, like holding the finger I just hit with the hammer and yelling "ouch!" or something stronger. But I do not have to react at all. I can "ignore" the pain, if I really have to. Nevertheless, I feel the pain just as much—it is the pain I feel that is the conscious experience, not my reaction to it. (So much for behaviorism.)
7. No Physical Description
No description of any physical (physiological or neurological) action or process related to perception explains or describes any perceptual quality or aspect of consciousness.
No matter what physical (mechanical-electrical-chemical) actions are described, that is all they can describe. When the biologist and physiologist have described all that the nervous system and brain have done, they still have not described consciousness—they have only described a complex of physical events, which no matter how complex or how closely associated to consciousness will never be a description of consciousness itself or any aspect of it.
8. TV in an Empty Room
It has been suggested that given sufficient complexity in the proper configuration, it is possible for a physical process to produce "consciousness." It is supposed, for example, that a complex nervous system like that of the higher animals and human beings in some way "produces" consciousness. The argument uses the pseudo-concept "emergence" which supposedly means new attributes just, "emerge," from the operation of other things, "somehow," but that, "somehow," is never explained. That is supposed to be science.
Conscious vision, according the physicalist, is produced by the nervous system providing information from the eyes that are processed in some way by the brain, which process is "seeing." In fact, no physical process can be vision—even if in some way information reaching the brain from the eye through the optic nerves could be processed into an image, it would be like an image on a TV—but an image on a TV is not vision and can only be consciously seen if someone is watching the TV.
The physicalist's description of consciousness is the description of a TV in an empty room. It is not an "image" that is consciousness; it is the "seeing," of of the image. Whatever the physical brain does, it cannot itself be consciousness. The behavior of the brain is only more physical action; it only makes available to consciousness what is seen, heard, felt, smelled and tasted—the brain itself cannot see, hear, feel, smell or taste anything.
The "Consciousness-Physical" Problem
There is a supposed problem in philosophy, more often called the "mind-body" problem, that asks, "if the mind (or consciousness) is not physical, how does the non-physical interact with or control the physical body. The question pertains to all conscious organism.
Consciousness is not a substance or incorporeal entity occupying a physical body, it is an attribute of the physical organism it is the consciousness of, an integral aspect of the organism without which the organism would not exist as the organism it is. It is the organism's life and consciousness that make it possible for the physical living organism to exist and act to maintain its own existence. Life and consciousness are not separate in any way from the organism, they are, together with the physical attributes, what an organism is. Consciousness is not a separate thing that interacts with the physical, consciousness is that attribute of the organism that makes an organism's specific living behavior possible. It is the organism itself that is conscious and as a conscious organism all its behavior (except for the strictly biological) is conscious behavior.
The Certainty of Consciousness
The one thing an individual is always certain of is their immediate conscious experience. No matter what they are experiencing, the perception of their own internal physical states (feelings and emotions), perception of the external world, dreams, hallucinations, their current thoughts, or imagination, that immediate conscious experience is what it is and one cannot be wrong about it. One can be wrong about the cause of their immediate experience, or about the nature of what the are experiencing, or why they are having the experience, but they cannot be wrong that they are having that experience.
"How do you know you are conscious?" the sophist asks. You cannot not know it. If you doubt you are conscious, the thing that is doing that doubting is your consciousness.
[Please see the article, "Perception," for details of the validity of perception.]