Question of the Week: What is Consciousness?

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On June 9th, the Mentionables received the following question from Benjamin Watkins: 

"What is Consciousness?"

Here are the answers from the team:

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This answer is from Mentionable Joel Furches:

This question calls out for more than a mere dictionary definition – and that alone is a difficult feat. At its simplest understanding, consciousness is “alertness,” that is to say, it is an awareness that not only takes in sensory information – as a more basic animal would – but is aware of itself. Unlike the physical body, which can only observe itself in the form of an exterior reflection, consciousness can observe itself through self-reflection and metacognition (thinking about thinking).

In this instance this idea of a “self” emerges. The human mind is not merely a material mechanism – like a clock – which is simply the sum of its parts, rather it is a whole which cannot be broken down into lesser parts. Self-is-self, nothing more, nothing less.

Here a Materialist would disagree. A Materialist is a person who believes that matter and energy are the only things that exist. As such, more abstract concepts, like mathematical sets, beauty, truth, and, indeed, mind, do not exist as abstracts. Merely properties of matter and energy.

From a Materialistic perspective, consciousness is just a bi-product of materialistic processes. Much like a computer can run algorithms in order to perform tasks, the human brain uses chemical and electrical impulses in such a way that it gives the illusion of self-awareness.

Of course here we immediately have a problem: what is “illusion” if not an abstract perception of a mind. Ultimately, materialism is stymied when trying to explain consciousness as it is intuitively understood.

The simplicity of mind – that is, the fact that it is not reducible to lesser parts – harkens back to a classical theological topic: that is, divine simplicity.

This doctrine teaches that God – as the source and totality of being – cannot be reduced to lesser parts. God is God, not a conglomeration of things that become God when pieced together.

If the human mind – call it a “soul” – is an irreducible formation similar to God (in that respect), it goes a long way toward supporting the Biblical narrative that humans were “made in God’s image,” and that “God breathed into him a living soul.”

One need not embrace a literal version of the creation narrative in order to reach this conclusion. Metaphorical or otherwise, the story of the creation of human persons contains a sufficient explanation for otherwise inexplicable things like consciousness.

If something exists – which is undeniable no matter how much one could otherwise dismiss aspects of reality – then “existence” as an abstract concept is nonetheless real. If existence is real, then so is being. God is described as Pure Being: the source and foundation of existence itself. Consciousness, and all that it entails, are wrapped up in the very nature of God.

What is consciousness? It is the property of a pure, irreducible being able to perceive reality and reflect upon itself. What is the origin of such beings? Being itself; that is, God. Among God’s properties is omniscience, and consciousness is just a lesser reflection of omniscience.

In order to avoid a central being as the source of consciousness, some have initiated the concept of “pan-psychism,” that is, the idea that consciousness is a property if all material objects: everything is conscious to one degree or another.

As a concept, pan-psychism quickly breaks down because it does not distinguish between objects. If, say, a clock has consciousness, do each of its gears have a separate consciousness? What about the molecules that make up those gears, the atoms that make up those molecules, the protons within the atoms and so forth? Physical objects – unlike minds – are reducible; almost infinitely so, and so making consciousness a property received by material objects confounds the concept and does not explain the sense of self that humans retain if applied to other objects.