Adventures in Consciousness from Neuroscience to Philosophy


Consciousness, The Hard Problem

Michael Shaun Conaway
Publishing Editor
September 20th, 2023

What is consciousness?

Do I have it or am I it?

Does consciousness exist physically?

And if it does, where?

The answer to this question was proven to still be, “don’t know” by the now famous wager between Christof Koch, neuroscientist and David Chalmers, philosopher that came to a conclusion after its initial 25 year period. Koch bet Chalmers that he would discover the physical signature of consciousness in the brain, Chalmers bet he would not. In June of this year The Association for the Study of Consciousness declared Chalmers the winner.

At this point we can say that there is no agreed upon discovery of a physical seat of consciousness in neuroscience. So if we are conscious and there is no part of the brain that is responsible for consciousness, where is it?

To explore this, we are going to have to question…everything.

When we say consciousness what do we mean? The definition is: The state of being aware of and able to think and perceive one’s surroundings, thoughts, and experiences. We have a first person experience of being aware, including an awareness of a self experiencing the surroundings from moment to moment. This is a phenomenological consciousness.

We are phenomenologically conscious almost every moment of our waking life and even aware from time to time when we are asleep. We are not always conscious of being conscious. In fact most of us are blissfully unaware of the experience of being aware. It falls into the everyday background obliviousness of our life.

So where is this consciousness if it isn’t in the brain? Some say that consciousness is an emergent property of the complex system of a human being. Emergent properties are those that arise from a system that cannot be found in the component parts. For example a cell respirates, it rhythmically breathes. Yet respiration cannot be found in any one of the component parts of the cell. It’s not in the cell wall. It’s not in the nucleus, the dna. Yet it emerges when the cell is all together intact — a dead cell does not respirate. If consciousness is emergent then we don’t have to find it in the brain or any other part of our body to have a viable explanation of consciousness.

The emergent model underpins the current philosophy in Artificial General Intelligence, AI that can think like a human being, generalizing knowledge from one area of learning to another. The idea is that once an AI has as many neural connections as we do, consciousness will emerge. But what kind of consciousness? A human’s consciousness? A dog’s consciousness?

Yes dogs are aware of their surroundings and in a limited way they have self awareness. Stepping aside from the AI conversation we should take a look at the ways we use the term consciousness.

In psychology we have the idea of the conscious and subconscious mind. The idea is that there are alot of psychological processes that are going on below the level of our conscious awareness. The problem with this idea is that there is no clear definition of where the diving line is. A more contemporary definition is automatic and controlled thought processes. Automatic processes being those that do not require conscious attention. Even in this definition it is hard to see that you could have an automatic process that is not a part of the subjective awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings. For the most part these automatic processes are in response to the surroundings and moment by moment circumstances of life. Think about pressing the brake pedal when you see a red traffic light.

In spirituality we have the idea of levels of consciousness. There are the basic awareness of self and surroundings, and other more esoteric levels of consciousness. These levels of consciousness include experiences of unity consciousness, emptiness, higher realms and other non-ordinary experiences. Yet are these higher levels of consciousness any different than being aware of self and surroundings? I can’t see how changing what you are aware of changes the basic understanding of consciousness, afterall each of us has differing surroundings, including physical, historical and linguistic elements and patterns.

Another highly contested kind of consciousness is that of wokeness. The term started out in the 1960’s as an African American term to indicate that one had “their eyes opened” to racial injustice and systemic oppression. Since that time it has expanded to include LGBTQ+ communities. It includes those who are “Woke” to their own oppression and to those who are allies. Woke is a way to say that they are conscious of their oppression. In this case we are using the “conscious of” construction. There are many things we can be conscious of, all of which require us to be conscious.

The idea of “conscious of” is referred to as intentionality by the Phenomenologists, Huserl and Heidigger. Intentionality is the capacity of our thoughts, beliefs, desires, and perceptions to be about something — to have content or to refer to objects, states of affairs, or events. When you think about your car, your thoughts are directed towards or “about” the car. Huserl and Heidigger argued that this is the only kind of consciousness, as we are always directing our intention to one thing or another. Thus consciousness isn’t an isolated phenomenon that exists on its own. Instead, it’s inherently relational. It’s always in relation to some content, whether it’s an external object, an internal thought, a memory, or some other mental content.

Chalmers, the winner of the bet with Koch says that intentionality is helpful in solving the easy problems with consciousness, which concern behaviors, mechanisms, and functions, it does not help us with the hard problem of consciousness which concerns why we have subjective experiences at all.

Why am I me?

That is the ultimate hard question in regard to consciousness. All intentionality can give us is: I am me because I am the one who is conscious of my surroundings, which is a half baked version of Descartes Cogito sum ergo. I think, therefore I am. This does nothing to tell us why there is an I in the first place or if that I is a reliable observer.

There are two ways out of this. One is the still unanswered question, where is consciousness. Maybe someday we will discover the part of our brain that is the seat of consciousness. At that point we could examine other creatures and see if they have this part in their brains as well. Those with the consciousness center would be conscious, others would not.

This would mean that there are sentient beings, ones that have subjective experiences, that are not conscious because they don’t have the ability to think about their surroundings or have self awareness. This seems seems to be a big misstep as it would mean that in order to answer the question of why we have subjective experience we would say that in one class of beings it is because of the structure of our brain, but for other, less conscious beings, we still can’t say why they have subjective experiences.

I prefer the other way out of this conundrum, one that Chalmers also considers to be a strong candidate for understanding why we have subjective experience. This is the philosophical view that mind or consciousness is a fundamental and universal aspect of reality. It posits that even the smallest particles of matter might have rudimentary forms of consciousness or experience. In western philosophy this is called Panpsychism.

Alfred North Whitehead, proposed a form of panpsychism in his process philosophy. He argued that the basic constituents of reality are “actual occasions” or “drops of experience.” These entities have both a physical and mental aspect.

If consciousness is one of the fundamental parts of the underlying fabric of the universe, then the hard problem goes away. We have subjective experience because that is universal. There is no special human case for consciousness, rather we can cast our imagination out in the universe and wonder what other marvelous forms of consciousness exist out there.

The Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen teachings hold that all beings have a pristine non-dual awareness called Rigpa. This awareness is self-existing and a priori to a being’s awareness. We have individual consciousness or thoughts because of this self-existing consciousness. The Dzogchen teachings are about how to directly experience the non-dual, pure Rigpa.

Both Panpsychism and Dzogchen point in the same direction, yet they are not the same thing. Panpsychism assigns consciousness to the smallest building blocks of reality while Dzogchen describes Rigpa as having a non-dual existence that is like the Yogācāra “Mind-only” school that holds that all phenomena are manifestations of the mind. Still, as one of my teachers used to say, that’s close enough for jazz.

Consciousness is a self-existing and fundamental part (or cause) of the universe.

Thus the hard problem is solved. We know why we are aware and we know where consciousness is located…everywhere all the time.

Welcome to the reality where consciousness is the universe in which you exist.

In the meantime, we’ll be looking for PROOF of a thriving future for humanity.

The Generative Futurist
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Proof 62 – Adventures in Consciousness from Neuroscience to Philosophy

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