The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

What Is Consciousness?

What is consciousness? What is it to be aware? The more we think, the less we can define it.  How does it happen? How does something in the brain (it is in the brain, isn't it?) lead to our emotions, feelings and thoughts? And why does it happen? Why were humans (and presumably, to some extent, many other animals) endowed with consciousness, with the ability to know that they exist, that they live, that other people live, that they are part of this universe and that they will die? Why do we need to "think" at all?

Why doesn’t our inner life mirror faithfully, one to one, our external life? When we experience sensations related to interactions of our body with the world, our emotional life can be said to mirror the environment. But when we think, sometimes we think things that never happen and will never happen. How can consciousness be so decoupled from the environment if brain processes are tightly coupled to it? Is consciousness a form of self-maintenance the same way that the autonomic system is a form of self-maintenance of the body regardless of what happens in the environment?

Paradoxes and weird properties of consciousness abound. 

Why can't i be aware of my entire being? We only have partial introspection.  We have no idea what so many organs are doing in our body.

Consciousness is limited to my head. Do I need hands and feet in order to be conscious? Is consciousness only determined by what is in the head, or is it affected also by every part of the body? Am I still the same person if they cut my legs? What if they transplant my heart?

We can only be conscious of one thing at a time. There are many things that we are not conscious of. How do we select which thing we want to be conscious of?

Why can I only feel my own consciousness and not other people's consciousness? Why can't I feel other people's feelings? Why can't anybody else feel my feelings? Conscious states are fundamentally different from anything else in nature because they are "subjective" and “opaque” (i can’t feel yours). They are not equally accessible to all observers.

Consciousness is a whole, unlike the body which is made of parts, unlike everything else which can be decomposed into more and more elementary units. Conscious states cannot be reduced to constituent parts.

How did consciousness come to exist in the first place? Did it evolve from non-conscious properties? In that case, why? What purpose does it serve?

Could I be conscious of things that I am not conscious of? Am I in control of my consciousness? Is this conscious thought of mine only one of the many possible conscious thoughts that I could have now, or is it the only conscious thought that I could possibly have now? Is consciousness in control of me? This question is crucial to understanding whether there is a locus of consciousness in the brain, or whether consciousness is simply a side-effect of processes that occur in the brain.

The most frustrating property of consciousness is probably its opacity: we cannot know who and what is conscious. How widespread is consciousness? Who else is conscious besides me? Are other people conscious the same way i am? Are some people more conscious and others less conscious? Are some animals also conscious? Are all animals conscious? Are plants conscious? Can non-living matter also be conscious? Is everything conscious?

Can things inside conscious things be conscious? Are planets and galaxies conscious? Are arms and legs conscious?

What is the self? The self seems to represent a sense of unity, of spatial and temporal unity: "my" self groups all the feelings related to my body, and it also groups all those feelings that occurred in the past. My body changed over the years, and my brain too. All the cells of the body change within seven years. Therefore my “mind” must have changed too.  But the self somehow bestows unity on that continuously changing entity.  If we consider that our bodies are ultimately made of elementary particles, and that the average lifetime of most elementary particles is a fraction of a second, we can say that our bodies are continuously rebuilt every second. The matter of our bodies changes all the time. The only thing that is preserved is the pattern of matter. And even that pattern changes slowly as we age. Not even the pattern is preserved accurately. What makes us think that we are still the same person? How can I still be myself?

Laws that protect animals are not clear about "what" makes an animal worthy of protecting: killing a neighborhood cat because I don't like it is generally considered offensive, but killing a spider because I don't like it is absolutely normal. One can own a dog and file a suit against somebody who killed it, but one cannot own an ant and file a suit against somebody who stepped over it. Why slaughtering cows by the millions is a lawful practice and killing a pigeon in a square is a crime?

The US physicist Erich Harth focused on the following properties of consciousness:  "selectivity” (only a few neural processes are conscious); "exclusivity" (only one perception at the time can be conscious); "chaining" (one conscious thought leads to another one"); "unitarity" (the sense of self).

These properties of consciousness (partiality, sequentiality, irreducibility, unity, opacity, etc) set consciousness apart from any other natural phenomenon. And make it difficult, if not impossible, to study it with the traditional tools of the physical sciences.

 


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