Defining Consciousness

This topic contains 5 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  PopeBeanie 3 years, 9 months ago.

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    Most non-scientists with an opinion on what consciousness is don’t seem to agree well on definitions, and scientists are still working out definitions at the same time as they accomplish empirical research. I just thought I’d keep a topic open for suggestions on agreeable terminology, and the latest definitions.

    Starting with a very interesting new angle on consciousness. (I feel it’s related to the already popular topic of “embedded consciousness”, namely how a brain is “embedded” in a body from birth and takes decades to mature.)

    Anil Seth TED Talk



    Here’s Oliver Sacks, also focusing on hallucinations, but more specifically in patients experiencing them in the classic “I’m seeing or hearing things that aren’t there” sense. The link I’m providing skips past about half the video for people who want to just jump into the denser content, but you can click at the beginning of the time bar if you want to see the full 18 minutes.


    Posting here rather than repeating like a broken record in Unseen’s topic:

    We already know that decisions happen before we are aware that we made them […]

    It still feels like I made the decision, whether or not it feels like it took time to happen. No definition of “experience” or “I” or “consciousness” or “sub-consciousness” can reasonably contradict with how the brain arrived at a decision–or at ambivalence, for that matter. Any non-“I” explanation, as you say, would necessitate explanation of a duality between “I” and the brain that we know cannot exist without each other.

    I remember learning to ride a bike, but now it happens on its own autopilot. This is an example of a conscious experience become unconscious, along with some other experiences like an ability to avoid potholes. Or when walking, learning where we can and can’t place each foot, on every step. Much of the unconscious part of me used to feel conscious. Once again, I must insist that we must understand the nature of this, and consider how far back into childhood and possibly even to neo-natal experiences and auto-pilot circuit building to have any kind of meaningful understanding of the really “big picture” of consciousness.

    Consciousness and its underlying sub-consciousness (and whatever other chemo-psychic processes that happen) throughout an entire lifetime are moving targets, practically by definition. You have to consider the entire possible spectrum of consciousness before lumping it all into just one “why” question begging for just one answer.

    And again, no one else here has even considered the effects on each individual’s consciousness of the culture we grow up in, which (imo) can most definitely be discussed as if it has a high degree of gratuitiveness that goes way above and beyond where mother nature’s purely animal/genetic form of evolution left us. Could cave man even know such questions could exist? No, even the questions themselves could only be invented (much less pondered) after culture sufficiently matured.

    So “explaining the gratuitive nature of human consciousness” would necessarily include explanations for the existence of art, crafts, industry, music, religion, even philosophy itself. Those cultural aspects of conscious experience necessarily incur separate consideration from aspects of how animals in general might experience their myriad, varying spectrums of consciousness and components of sub-consciousness.



    If I created a very smart machine that turned out paintings, and it had a very human interface (Japanese automatons are becoming creepily believable in terms of their “social stimulus value,” so if one of these Turing-humans gave you art and it was good enough to be bought and sold on the fine art market, would that necessarily imply a consciousness generating it? And why (whatever your answer is)?

    Remember, my concern is whether this being is having experiences, because I think that is what consciousness is, And notice that this definition even covers things like dreams and optical illusions.

    Can androids dream of electric sheep?



    Can androids dream of electric sheep?

    @unseen, I apologize for my first, rambling response to your post, and/so following is more to the point. [PopeBeanie edit: I moved that post out of this topic because I think it was distractingly too wordy.]

    That is a really important question, and I think that since we don’t know if/how we’ll ever be able to reproduce or create consciousness artificially, I feel strongly that experimentally trying to do so is unethical. If we cannot know what actually goes in inside an artificial brain (or vessel of thoughts and/or experiences), how could we possibly ever know if we were creating a consciousness that suffers while we experiment with it?

    Perhaps the most ethical path toward such experimentation is to deal with naturally evolved human brains and incrementally enhance human experiences artificially, e.g. by repairing damaged neurocircuitry, adding sensory circuits (e.g. connecting to a tiny night-vision device), adding ultrasonic hearing, speeding up recovery from PTSD, adding comm channels (like wifi?!)… the list of possible repairs and enhancements is virtually unlimited, and objective/subjective reports of conscious experiences would be (imo) much more reliable than starting from scratch proto-consciousness, not to mention opted in with patient consent.

    Picking up on specifics you mention like art, dreams, and optical illusions, I just don’t see any way to delve into and thoroughly understand these kinds of experiences without first 1) advancing human neuro-technology and 2) getting reports from humans who consent to relevant experiments.

    • This reply was modified 4 years, 1 month ago by  PopeBeanie. Reason: see "PopeBeanie edit" near the top of this post


    Consciousness is not one thing. It is a combination of neural processes that include attention; awareness/experience of self and awareness of sensory input; recall of episodic memory, metaphorical, numerical, estimational, and artistic cognition; an inner narrator that speaks in our native language and is able to focus on various aspects of inner consciousness.

    Those things I just mentioned just came to the top of my mind. YMMV.

    Your focus on particular experiences will vary from mine, as will our abilities to focus. These abilities and their activities also change over time, from uterus to senility, over periods of varying physical or mental health, from sleep to awake, depending on environment and other external, situational contexts; depending on position in society, whether one is experiencing a concert or their pet, their family, weather, and so on.

    This amalgam of neural processes we call consciousness is hardly scientifically defined, but defined colloquially by society and its history, and by personal history and opinion. Definitions of “free will”, one of the aspects that one seems to consciously feel (or can at times distressfully feel the absence of), is a good example of an aspect of consciousness that is not yet scientifically defined, much less measured, but defined by myth, culture, and each individual. If any animals have the slightest notion or thought about free will, they most certainly don’t have brains capable of its discussion.

    And yet many of those attributes of consciousness that we can discuss do indeed exist to lesser and various degrees in other animals. Hence our mandate to define basic consciousness, at least, in neuro-evolutionary terms. We know for example that many emotions we can experience are experienced in various degrees among species. Consciousness is not an all-or-nothing capability, but various and variable by species and by individual.

    At the same time, only humans can discuss concepts like free will, consciousness, and spirituality pseudo-scientifically. We’re great at inventing fiction, over-generalizations based on anecdotes, and we’re too often susceptible to our own tribal and prejudicial natures and confirmation biases. Btw, are these “flaws” not also “aspects of consciousness” we might experience on a daily basis?

    Consciousness is not a magical or mystical entity. It is a collection of experiences that vary according to person, and according to species. Science-wise it is as of yet ill-defined, but (imo) will eventually be understood and described more deeply and empirically as sets of very interactive neural processes that give rise to the experiences that produce awareness and consciousness. Which currently seems overwhelmingly complex. So we should first focus research on its most basic and shared aspects.

    Meanwhile, understanding consciousness necessarily requires us to understand to some degree underlying, unconscious contributions to it. And who’s to say our consciousness and unconscious do not interact? When we’re reading, or playing tennis, does not our unconscious absorb these experiences, tuning our muscle memory, language centers, and gut feelings? Which in turn enhance our conscious tennis playing, language skills, and enlightenment of the world around us.

    The key here, at least imo at first, is to not define our conscious and unconscious neuro-nets as precisely defined non-interacting entities, but to learn how they interact and produce our personal experiences, and in an even bigger picture, how we can share and understand each others, while the scientists keep working on how to best measure and describe the design and process of the underlying neuro-nets.

    (Please excuse when I repeat something previously written. I should eventually edit, merge, and delete my own posts. Yes! Merge and reduce my streams of consciousness.)

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