The general definition of consciousness is very simple. It refers to a state of being aware of yourself as well as the world around you. But, in reality, consciousness is far more complex than this definition suggests. There are so many questions that surround it, and humans have been trying to answer them for as long as they’ve understood its existence.
Are the mind and consciousness separate from the physical body? Are humans the only animals that can truly experience consciousness? At what moment do individuals first experience consciousness, and at what moment will it stop? Is consciousness something that can be shared, awoken, or even created by humans? These are just a few of the questions that have stumped the greatest minds in history.
Something as vast, complicated, and mysterious as consciousness is bound to attract the attention of intellectuals. Hundreds of theories have been developed by philosophers, psychologists, religious leaders, and scientists over the centuries. Some of these theories would go on to develop a serious following. Others would be dismissed and forgotten.
After centuries of studying and debating consciousness, can you say that you understand any more than you did at the beginning? The answer to that question often depends on who you ask. For example, many modern scientists believe humans are very close to not only understanding consciousness but having the ability to recreate it within a machine.
The following article will include some of the most popular opinions and theories on the subject of consciousness. It will also cover some of the most significant studies, trials, experiments, and breakthroughs that have occurred.
William James and The Stream of Consciousness
Born in 1842, William James was one of the most respected philosophers and psychologists of the 19th century. He is frequently referred to as the “Father of American Psychology.” James made many great contributions to modern philosophy, including new ways of thinking about consciousness. He is perhaps most well-known for working with Charles Sanders Peirce to develop pragmatism, a unique school of philosophical thinking.1
James’s in-depth understanding of psychology helped him develop philosophical theories regarding consciousness that were quite different from what existed at the time. One of his contributions was the notion that humans are constantly experiencing a stream of consciousness in relation to their thoughts and focus.
At the time, some people believed that thought existed at certain moments and not at others. They might represent consciousness as a train where each cart is a conscious thought, but the links between them were moments when thoughts had no focus. James asserted that conscious thought was not a train with breaks, but rather a stream that remained connected from the very beginning and that was always moving from one point to another.
James outlined five key characteristics of the stream of consciousness and the self:
1. All forms of thought must be owned by a personal self.
2. Human thought is constantly moving and changing without any static moment.
3. Despite the erratic nature of thought, there is always an ongoing continuity from one thought to the next.
4. Most thoughts deal with objects that are different from consciousness itself, which allows two people to experience a similar object.
5. Consciousness will often focus on a particular object and ignore others at the same time.
Many modern philosophers and psychologists believe in this stream of consciousness and incorporate it into their own work. It is enough to loosely define a constant state of consciousness in all humans without completely restricting them to one certain belief or school of thought. It has also led to some interesting studies and tests in recent years.
Directing the Stream of Consciousness
One question that begs to be answered is whether or not the stream of consciousness can be directed from an outside source. It is generally believed that such control is impossible because the stream of consciousness is being controlled completely by internal sources. This means that even if a person could be trained to suppress a certain physical behavior, the corresponding thoughts would still occur inside the mind.
Surprisingly, a recent experiment was able to create involuntary thoughts in participants using outside sources. Those who participated in the study were told not to subvocalize the name of a specific object they were shown and not to count the letters in that object’s name. They were then shown very simple pictures, such as a picture of the sun. More than 80 percent of the participants failed the tasks.
The experiment was incredibly simple but has the potential to change how people perceive the stream of consciousness. The results revealed that it’s much easier to influence or direct the stream than previously thought. It also implicated that individuals have less control over conscious thought than certain stimuli.
The type of reaction that occurred has been labeled automatic triggering. One theory is that once the part of the brain related to a certain mental task is activated, it will automatically trigger even when being told not to. Thus, since the participants were told not to think of the name, it led to that process automatically triggering when it had the chance.
Some believe that this automatic triggering may be related to or responsible for certain mental disorders. For example, people who suffer from constant repetitive thoughts or serious obsessions. It’s possible that those people are unable to shut out the unwanted thoughts caused by the automatic triggering.
But is that the way the mind is supposed to work? Should people be able to filter out and control their own thoughts? It may seem advantageous, but it could certainly have negative consequences. Having the ability to completely shut out negative feelings could seriously stunt mental and emotional development.
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In any case, there is clearly much to be learned about the stream of consciousness, as well as how it can be controlled from the inside and from the outside.
Ned Block Outlines Two Types Of Consciousness
Ned Block was born in 1942 and became a professor of psychology and philosophy at New York University in 1996. Much of his life has been dedicated to the pursuit of philosophy and attempting to understand consciousness. Some of his most notable achievements include the Blockhead argument and his paper “Psychologism and Behaviorism.” 2
At some point, Block began to discuss his belief that there were two types of consciousness experienced by humans. One type was labeled phenomenal consciousness or P-consciousness. The other was labeled access consciousness or A-consciousness. It is his belief that these two types of consciousness are different and experienced in different ways.
P-consciousness refers to everything that people experience This includes colors, sounds, feelings, and all actions. These various aspects are called qualia when they are examined independently of how they impact behavior.
A-consciousness refers to how the mind handles information and reasoning and controls certain behaviors. Some examples of A-consciousness include remembering the past, examining thoughts, and creating ideas based on the information people perceive from the outside world.
Block’s theories regarding consciousness have earned a substantial number of followers, as well as some harsh critics. There are many people who believe that all of consciousness is comprised of computational processes that could theoretically be defined in a program. However, it would seem nearly impossible to define phenomenal experiences within the confines of a computer program.
According to Block, there are conscious experiences that cannot be reproduced using algorithms or programming. His position on consciousness is similar to that of vitalists in regard to life itself. A vitalist would say that life is not comparable to any other physical process because it has non-physical parts. On the other hand, biologists would refute that claim and use the many different physical processes that makeup life as a tool for defining life.
But it is not the biologists who are on the opposing side of Block’s dual-consciousness theories. It is the people who believe in or are researching artificial consciousness. The idea that humans may one day recreate consciousness within a machine is very popular, particularly in the fields of science and technology. For this to happen, all aspects of consciousness would need to be defined by algorithms, which would prove much of Block’s theory to be wrong.
Much of this debate boils down to the definition of qualia and how they help mold consciousness. Are all qualia defined by subjective experiences that cannot be duplicated with computer algorithms? Of course, there is no clear answer to this question as of yet, but there are many theories.
How Qualia Affects Consciousness
The philosophical concept of qualia lies at the heart of many consciousness-based theories. In its most basic form, a quale (the singular form of qualia) is a singular subjective instance that can be considered a conscious experience. This could be a person perceiving the color of the sky, the pain of an injury, or the sound of music.
While the specifics of qualia can be widely debated, the truth of their existence cannot. Everyone experiences these things on an ongoing basis throughout life. The idea of qualia and what they mean can be extremely confusing, but qualia itself is something people have known and experienced their entire lives.
But what if a person did not experience any qualia at all? This idea is often referred to as a “philosophical zombie” or a “P-zombie.” It is a type of person who is physically the same as any other human and could act the same as any human but has experienced no subjective qualia. In relation to Block’s theory, this would be a person who only experienced A-consciousness without the P-consciousness counterpart.
The idea of a P-zombie has become an interesting philosophical thought tool when arguing against behaviorism. One of the main concepts of behaviorism is that a person’s mental state is a direct consequence of their phenomenal experiences. But if it were possible for a P-zombie to exist without any qualia (or phenomenal consciousness) and to still behave exactly the same as a normal human, then behaviorism must not be true.
Such arguments rarely see any form of conclusion. The very nature of qualia makes it impossible to convey them verbally. This is one of the main reasons that Block believed that consciousness could never be reproduced using computer algorithms. This makes it very difficult to demonstrate that qualia exist at all.
Perhaps colors and other sensations are just physical constructs that are not subjective and have no real connection to human consciousness. There are some respected philosophers who argue that qualia do not exist. Likewise, there are various thought experiments designed to help people reach the conclusion that qualia are a real non-physical construct.
The Work of John Locke
Born in 1632, John Locke is spoken of as one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers. He was a physician and a philosopher. He is also labeled as the “Father of Liberalism.” The work of John Locke has influenced countless thinkers over the centuries. His theory of mind is said to mark the origin of modern thinking regarding consciousness and identity.
Locke’s work was the first to define a person according to their consciousness. He believed that humans were born without any pre-existing ideas or thoughts. He claimed that they are all blank slates that will be molded according to experiences and individual perceptions.
John Locke devised numerous thought experiments throughout his career. One such experiment is known as spectrum inversion, which is also referred to as the inverted qualia experiment. The specifics of the argument have been duplicated and altered many times over the years, but still, maintain the same core concepts. In most cases, colors are used to represent the qualia.3
First, let’s define qualia as the subjective experience that occurs when you see color. The color itself is the physical aspect, but your conscious thought that occurs when you see it is the quale. At first, this might seem contradictory. If you were looking at the color blue, then wouldn’t the quale be specifically related to seeing blue, thus making it a physical property? That is where the inverted spectrum experiment comes into play.
Colors are always an excellent representation of scenarios involving qualia because it’s something that most people can relate to and visualize in their mind. Colors also have interesting properties related to their position on the color wheel. There are four unique colors, which are red, blue, green, and yellow. These colors are at the North, East, South, and West positions on the wheel. In between, them are all other colors. Those colors are known as binary and are made by blending the two unique colors on either side of them.
Yellow is at the top of the color wheel and blue is at the bottom. Thus, it can be said that blue is the opposite of yellow. The same applies to red and green. Finally, it also applies to all colors that come in between the two unique colors. Each color on the opposite side of the wheel is said to be the “opposite” of that color.
The inverted spectrum argument asks people to imagine waking up to a world where all colors appear inverted for some unknown reason. Meanwhile, there are no physical changes in the mind or body that would explain these changes. Thus, all that is truly changing is the phenomenal experience or the quale itself.
The simple fact that you can imagine this happening shows that you can imagine a perceived change to the appearance of an object without any physical cause. This is said to prove the existence of qualia as non-physical properties.
Of course, the debate behind qualia and the inverted spectrum goes much deeper than can be covered here. There are many people who argue against this experiment because there are many potential flaws. Nonetheless, it has fueled many great ideas regarding consciousness and what it means to be human.
The subject of consciousness because even more confusing when you branch away from humans. Animals and machines are two non-humans areas of consciousness that are widely studied and debated. An animal certainly experiences stimuli, such as color, pain, and sound, but does that mean they experience qualia? And if they do experience qualia, does that mean they are conscious? Similarly, a computer receives input from a number of sensors, but does that input create a subjective conscious sensation?
It may be impossible to ever truly know if an animal experiences consciousness. After all, humans have such a difficult time even understanding and defining their own consciousness.
Humans may not be able to openly communicate with animals, as philosopher Thomas Nagel points out, but they can observe them. Many experts believe that animals are consciously based on observations of that animal’s behavior. For example, many animals can be seen behaving certain ways or holding beliefs in regards to things that cannot be clearly detected. This leads observers to believe the animal is experiencing some form of consciousness as humans know it.
Consciousness must be approached in much smaller segments when non-human entities are involved. This is because it is very likely that consciousness is not clearly black and white, as in you have it or you don’t. Philosopher Daniel Dennet states that there may be many degrees of consciousness, and you must discover which aspects may be present in animals to discover how those animals think and work.4
One aspect of consciousness that is very important and believed to be inherently human is self-identity or self-perceptive. It refers to certain beliefs that a person has about themselves. They could use that self-identity to answer the single question, “Who am I?”. Self-identity has been frequently studied over the years with infants, as well as various animal species.
One way to study self-identity is with the mirror test. A mark is placed on an animal while they are sedated. The mark is placed in an area that can only be seen when the animal is looking into a mirror. If the animal sees its reflection and then begins to groom the marked area, then it must be aware of itself and have an idea of who it is and how it should look. Apes, elephants, pigeons, and dolphins are all capable of passing this test.
Why some animals can pass this test and not others is not fully understood. It was once believed that only animals with a neocortex that could recognize their reflection. But recent studies involving magpies has proven this theory false.
This study has also been modified for animals that do not rely primarily on vision. In the case of dogs, there is the “sniff test of self-recognition” (STSR). The STRS has provided researchers with plenty of evidence that suggests self-awareness and self-identity in dogs.
In truth, humans still know very little about consciousness. Is it a state of mind reserved only for humans? Will it be reproduced one day for mechanical objects? Is it even possible for inanimate objects to experience some form of consciousness? It seems that each year researchers discover more questions and more theories.
It is possible that a single thread will connect each of these great theories in time—the idea that all humans experience a single stream of consciousness that is constantly flowing and changing direction. That stream may constantly shift based on subjective phenomenal experiences, and it may be possible that the second type of assessment consciousness also affects that stream.
Does this consciousness stream flow through everyone in the same way? Does it flow through dogs and computers? People may not know the answers just yet, but research and philosophical experiments are taking researchers closer to the answer each day. By building on the works of John Locke, Ned Block, and William James, the great minds of tomorrow may be able to solve the mystery of consciousness.
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