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Consciousness: What Do we Mean?

The term ‘consciousness’ is one of the most evoked concepts in the history of mankind. Today, it is consciousness, but centuries back it was either the soul, intuition, spirit, quintessence, essence, other man, alter ego, the immortal spark or simply the mind.

What does it mean to be conscious? What kind of things are conscious?

We turn to Philosophy to properly situate this argument, its terms and boundaries for a level playing ground. Why Philosophy? The answer is not because it has absolute responses but that it has a solid record of accomplishment of transforming questions into a structural and coherent form for dialogue among various fields of knowledge.

Let us begin from the most reliable evidence we have, ourselves. We can be completely certain that we exist because we are in fact, at this very moment contemplating our existence. This is the age-long assertion of Rene Descartes after his meditations called the cogito ergo sum- I think, therefore, I am. Based on the indubitable fact that I am, what is the nature of this 'I'? Descartes, a pioneering philosopher on this subject, after a series of careful meditations, concluded that the ‘I’ was an extended thing (a body) inhabited by an extensionless substance which is the soul. While the former is bound in space and time, subject to changes, the latter subsists long after death of the physical body.

Overtime, this duality of existence, because of the difficulty associated with understanding how two distinct substances with no common basis to interact are unified, most theorist have attempted to find alternative explanations. Today, the term consciousness emerged to describe the state of an organism as the self-awareness of the contents of its thoughts and interactions with his environment. It may appear quite simple yet there are several distinctions to be made. The organism referenced here is assumed to be in a wakeful or non-comatose state in order to be aware of his unique thoughts from a first-person perspective.

Using this definition, what kinds of organisms meet this criterion? What makes me conscious, yet my Alexa, non-conscious? In fact, I may have more responses from Alexa that I have ever had from my neighbor who barely says a word to me. Consciousness does not purely reside in verbal or non-verbal communication although it is enhanced by it. Patients who suffer from locked-in syndrome are believed to be conscious, yet are incapable of language communication.

This is where the philosophers become useful by attempting to provide a generic criterion for consciousness, one of which we have previously evoked, self-awareness. This quality is the knowledge of "what it feels like"(Nagel, 1974) to be that organism. This acquaintance is so subjective that it is extremely difficult to explain yet we all know it. [1]It is how I know that a zombie is unconscious even if it performs all the tasks that I perform, or that Sophia, the super intelligent AI, although can mimic emotions, does not know what it is like to actually have them. Sophia only acts in accordance with the programmed algorithms that her makers give her. When she says, “I have my own emotions too, roughly simulating human evolutionary psychology and various regions of the brain”[2] she has no true self-awareness of how it feels like to be a being with emotions just a functional bot.

The question then is how different are we? The answers to this are wide-ranging. Let us assess two main positions that cover the main responses in the field of philosophy, the reductive and the non-reductive physicalist.

First, there is the response of evolutionary biology that explains the mind as uniquely a mechanism fashioned out of survival needs. Consequently, humans developed a complex mechanism of interaction with their environment because of a need to propagate and survive. In this explanation, evolutionary biologists explain consciousness as a protective mechanism that allow us to differentiate between harmful things, like when we feel pain after being bitten; and pleasurable things, like the taste of a good cup of coffee.

Another interesting perspective to consider is the idea of panpsychism. This theory states that we are all conscious entities. Humans merely have more complex awareness of their ‘psyche’ therefore seem more conscious that other non-human entities. This is often the position taken by religious and spiritual sects by calling consciousness the act of ‘tapping into the inner self’ that is in all of us.

Philosophically, two questions have been raised about these positions. The first, which reduces the consciousness of an entity to the brain and nothing beyond it, is forced to answer the question of why evolution would permit a feature such as quale (the first-person feeling) that has no functional role. This is because without the feeling of what it feels like to be in pain or to have pleasure our bodies are fully capable of distinguishing between harmful and pleasurable situations. Like when I touch a hot cup of coffee, the muscles in my hand quickly contract away from the source of harm mechanically without recourse to a ‘feeling’ of pain. Since evolution seems to prioritize functionality, it is inconsistent that consciousness, a huge aspect of our human nature, is without a specific role in the structure and function of the body.

The second position of a pervasive psyche is a tricky one to answer. It appears to be a favorable direction for some empirical studies on the phenomenon of consciousness. One of these is the Integrated Information Theory[3], which proposes that consciousness is the ability of any system to integrate information. This feature of integration is measured by the mathematical formula phi representing the cause-effect[4] repertoires of any given system. In very simple terms, consciousness is all around us, the higher a system is integrated, the higher the quality of consciousness. This novel introduction, upon further analysis changes a lot about the world we know. It calls into question the Darwinian evolutionary idea because it appears that the randomness of evolution is too arbitrary to account for the specific nature of our individual conscious minds. There is such a careful fine-tuning of the world and the humans in it that is too questionable to assign to natural selection.

Again, it begs the question of the possibility of much higher consciousness than what we currently experience. If consciousness is more information integration, then a more efficient integration of information would result in a superior functioning conscious mind. Is this achievable? How do we do this? Is it a structure-functional feature or we can mechanically alter our brains to achieve this? How conscious are you?

[1] The description what it feels like, which has also been called the phenomenal aspect ofconsciousness or quale, refers to that first-person experience of the activities. See further, Chalmers(1996).


[3] Integrated information theory (IIT) is a theoretical framework for understanding consciousness developed by Dr. Giulio Tononi and collaborators at the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

[4] The probability distribution of potential past and future states of a system as constrained by a mechanism in its current state.


  1. Descartes, René, 1596-1650. (1993). Discourse on method ; and, Meditations on first philosophy. Indianapolis :Hackett Pub. Co.,

  2. Tononi G (2004) An information integration theory of consciousness. BMC Neurosci 5: 42.

  3. Chalmers DJ (1996) The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford University Press). [Google Scholar]

  4. Nagel, Thomas (1974). What is it like to be a bat? _Philosophical Review_ 83 (October):435-50.

  5. Sophia - Hanson Robotics


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