What is Consciousness? Can it ever be scientifically explained?

For me, one of the most intriguing questions we still haven’t answered yet is the one on what consciousness is. We humans all know that we are aware, conscious, and have attention. It’s something that is undeniable for us. But scientifically, we have no verdict yet on exactly what consciousness is nor “where” it takes place.

Some of the current questions being tackled are:

  • Is consciousness located somewhere (or multiple places) in the brain?
  • Or perhaps is consciousness simply a bi-product of neural processes?
  • Maybe consciousness is it just an illusion, made up by our intelligence to make sense of the world?
  • Even further, consciousness can be tied to the question of free will. If the feeling of consciousness comes after neural activities that determine action, does that mean that we do not have free will at all?

Recommended read: A Book About Our Consciousness

two Leading Theories: Dualism Vs Physicalism

You could say that there are two leading schools today. One of the dualist views (dualism), and one of the physicalists (physicalism). In the current state of research, none of them have overwhelming evidence over the other.

1. Dualism Theory of Consciousness

In the philosophy of mind, dualism is the theory that the mental and the physical – or mind and body or mind and brain – are, in some sense, radically different kinds of thing.

Standford Encylopedia

So, in short, a dualist believes that consciousness is not a physical thing. Therefore, it cannot be fully explained by examining physical processes such as the brain and its neural activities.

There are different types of dualist theories. Some of which claim that consciousness is something “more”, unexplainable by science (religion). Others, like Thomas Nagel, talk about the subjective nature of consciousness.

What is it like to be a bat?” by Thomas Nagel is one of the world’s most famous articles on the topic of consciousness. In short, Nagel’s point is that we humans could never put ourselves in the subjective view of how it would be to be a bat. We simply do not have the mental capacity or necessary experiences, nor the language capacity, to do so. And this comes from his definition of consciousness which is:

Consciousness is the specific subjective point of view, of how it is like to be a particular specific organism.

This is an interesting point of view since it differs from what many others would define as consciousness. It is common for people to think about consciousness as the mere awareness of oneself and the world around you. Or, some people feel like consciousness is the ability to direct attention on something – No attention, no consciousness.

But Nagel goes past all that, and ties consciousness to specifically the subjective point of view. This is important because it then implies that every single consciousness that exists is entirely unique and cannot ever be objectively or “scientifically” explained in terms of physical processes. This view implies that consciousness is unexplainable in any general terms.

Quantum Level Description of Consciousness

Another interesting perspective on consciousness is to try to explain it at the quantum level. In physics, there are two levels of describing things. One is the familiar classical level that we use to describe large-scale objects, and the other is the quantum level. The quantum level is used to describe very small things such as physical entities of photons and electrons.

At the classic level, either one thing or the other can be true. But at the quantum level, two possibilities can exist at the same time. So, when we observe consciousness at the classical level, the possible states have collapsed into one.

It’s a pretty recent perspective on consciousness, to go about it from the perspective of the quantum level. One of the theories that do this is by Henry Stapp.

On Stapp’s theory, the quantum brain is understood as a ‘collection of classically conceived alternative possible states of the brain’ which ‘all exist together as “parallel” parts of a potentiality for future additions to a stream of consciousness’

Consciousness: An introduction by Susan Blackmore

These types of theories have inspired many popular and modern spiritual theories. I think it’s interesting to read more scientific theories regarding the same claims some modern spiritual leaders postulate about. It is noticeable how spiritual claims, coming from the quantum level, give consciousness a much more encompassing “power” than what the scientific theories do.

2. Physicalist theory of Consciousness

So, could it be that consciousness can never be physically explained?

Well, Nagel seems to think so. But there are counter-arguments as well that are likewise as interesting to reflect about. One of which is from Dennett, one of the best-known contemporary philosophers.

“Dennett denies Nagel’s claim that the bat’s consciousness is inaccessible, contending that any “interesting or theoretically important” features of a bat’s consciousness would be amenable to third-person observation.”

Consciousness Explained

In other words, Dennett (and others who agree with him) mean that it is possible to explain any feature of consciousness in physical terms so that someone else could understand. This includes both different human experiences, but as well as the conscious experience of how it is like to be a bat. They do not agree with his view that consciousness is a specific subjective experience that is unaccessible for others to fully understand.

This is the physicalist view where one does believe that consciousness and other mental processes (such as memory, emotions, and perception) can be fully explained by examining its physical processes.

Nagel (the dualist) seems to respond to this by proposing the idea that perhaps the objective explanation of things should be seen as different degrees of understanding. In his article, he takes up the example of objectively describing a flash of lightning. Yes, we can describe the speed, altitude, latitude, and charge, but perhaps there is an even deeper explanation of the flash that we objectively cannot reach. To tie this to consciousness, this would mean that consciousness could be generalized and explained in physical terms, but that explanation would not catch the entire experience of consciousness.

My Reflections

Personally, I do not fully agree with Nagel’s view that consciousness needs to be a specific subjective point of view of the organism having a conscious experience. For me, that is too enclosed of a definition of consciousness. I see consciousness more as the combination of multiple traits of intelligence such as self-awareness, the ability to have and direct attention, and awareness of internal & external happenings.

Consciousness is in my mind is the most basic foundation, an ability or sensation we experience. It is “below” specific thoughts and emotions. Those things are just temporary features of our consciousness. It is like when you are in successful meditation, where you do not have any thoughts or distractions, but you are more present and conscious than other times.

And as I come from a background in cognitive science, I lean towards Dennett’s view that consciousness could be explained from the bottom-up processes. But at the same time, I enjoy Nagels’ argument that perhaps objective explanations of things can be a scale. Where we could explain consciousness physically, but then describe each specific instance of consciousness we need even more encompassing theories, taking into account an individual’s earlier experiences, current environment, and so on.

But even if I were to agree with Nagel’s dualist views, I’d still have the following question:

For example, if we were to take newborn babies and assume that they are born with a very simple degree of consciousness. (Note: We do not know yet exactly when humans first experience consciousness, but the assumption is for the sake of my argument). Would not two babies who have a very limited amount of experience, which are extremely similar to each other, possibly have the “same” consciousness? And if that is possible, would it not be possible for someone who has also been in the exact same “point” of consciousness before, fully describe their consciousness? For me, it seems like the natural answer would be yes. But this would also entail that consciousness could be a point of a scale, which I do not believe. I instead believe that consciousness is a current/moment-to-moment conjunctions of brain activity.

Obviously, this is a question no one has been able to answer yet but isn’t it interesting to think about?

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