What, Then, Is Consciousness?

Article excerpt


Consciousness is one of the ubiquitous phenomena which when subjected to any kind of systematic study and analysis becomes elusive to comprehend, describe and explain. It is in this respect that the kind of puzzlement and difficulty encountered in understanding and defining consciousness is compared with that which is encountered in understanding and defining time. It is said, for example that "in thinking about consciousness, the puzzlement one finds oneself in is rather like St. Augustine's riddle in his contemplations about the nature of time: When no one asked him, he knew what it is; being asked, however, he no longer did." (1) As David Chalmers notes, "consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved." (2) One may, however, wonder why consciousness, something so familiar and commonly close to us, brews problems. Contemporary literature is replete with rigorous attempts inquire what makes consciousness, and what sort of problems it creates. However, these efforts have not yielded the desired result because the object of inquiry is itself opaque. 'What is 'consciousness'?' is a question whose answer is not obvious. Hence, attempts to resolve it result in searching for an unknown object by groping in the dark. The focus of this paper is to elucidate the problem of identifying the object of enquiry in consciousness studies. It identifies and critically discusses the different conceptions of consciousness and draws out the sense in which defining consciousness is really a problem of consciousness.

The general problems of consciousness

What could be regarded as the general problems of consciousness are multifaceted. I would like to categorize some of these problems into two. The first, concerns the epistemological issues on the concept of consciousness. Parts of the problems are to answer the questions: What are the various conceptions of consciousness? How does one distinguish among these conceptions? How does one know that she is conscious? How does one relate this knowledge to others? The second category, concerns the ontological issues about the phenomenon referred to as 'consciousness'. What kinds or forms of phenomena does the concept 'consciousness' refer to? What are the differences among these kinds of phenomena? There is the further problem which is that given some properties of consciousness, consciousness is supposedly a distinct kind of phenomenon, different from matter. Given this supposition, the question is, 'how are we to understand the causal relationships between consciousness and matter and, in particular, the causal relationship between consciousness and the brain?' What are the properties of consciousness? Do these properties exist? Why does their existence create problems?

Max Velmans identified three fundamental issues that are often regarded as parts of the problems of consciousness. These are: 'what is the function of consciousness? How, for example, does it relate to human information processing?'; 'what forms of matter are associated with consciousness - in particular, what are the neural substrates of consciousness in the human brain?' and; 'what are the appropriate ways to examine consciousness, to discover its nature? Which features can we examine with first-person methods, which features require third-person methods, and how do first-and third-person findings relate to each other?' (3) The issues raised in by Velmans can be grouped into two categories. The first category of issues are about what consciousness does; the functions of consciousness. The second category bothers on the ontology of consciousness; the nature of the phenomenon called 'consciousness'. These issues are embedded in the questions earlier highlighted as the problems of consciousness, and which David Chalmers (4) summed up as the 'easy' and 'hard' problems of consciousness. However, while these issues about the nature of consciousness and what consciousness does are worthy of consideration on their own, it is important that we are clear about what 'consciousness' is. …


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