The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Two Levels of Consciousness

We can take consciousness as a primitive concept (just like "time", "space" and "matter"), that we all “know” even though we cannot define it.  We can define what the brain (or at least the neural system) is and what brain processes are. We can define cognition, as the set of cognitive faculties (learning, memory, language, etc), each of way is relatively easy to define.

When we refer to cognition, we are often interested in more than just the neural process underlying a cognitive faculty. We are interested in general questions such as "how can a living thing remember something" and "how can a living thing learn something".  Such questions have two parts. The first part is about the mechanism that allows a piece of living matter to remember or learn something in the sense of being able to perform future actions based on it. The second part is about the awareness of remembering or learning something. The first part doesn't really require consciousness, and it may well be explained on a purely material basis. Even non-conscious things (non-living matter) may be able to remember and learn. Ultimately, the first part of the cognitive process can be summarized as: "Matter modifies itself based on occurrences in the environment so that its future behavior will be different".  Fascinating and intriguing, but far less mysterious than the other half of the phenomenon: "... and, in the process, it is also aware of all of this".

The mechanisms that preside over memory, learning, language and reasoning can be described in material terms. And machines have been built that mimic those processes.  The other half of the problem is still as mysterious as it was centuries ago.  How does a brain process give rise to the awareness that the process is going on?

It looks like by "mind" we always meant something physical, material, reducible to physical processes inside the brain, which could be reproduced in a laboratory, and possibly on beings made of a different substance. But at the same time we also meant something that today's sciences cannot replicate in a laboratory: the awareness of that physical process going on inside us.

“Mind” encompasses both the cognitive processes (of memory and learning, language and reasoning) and the “feeling” associated with those processes: consciousness.

At closer inspection, "consciousness" is a term that encompasses a number of phenomena: thought, the self (the sense of the “i”, the awareness of being), bodily sensations (such as pain and the color red), emotions (anger, happiness, fear, love). But not necessarily cognition (reasoning, memory, learning, etc). 

There is a "narrative", "cognitive", "higher-level" consciousness, which is relatively detached from our bodily experience and which seems to rely on language, and there is an "experiential", "sensorial" consciousness, which has to do with sensations received from the senses, i.e. with our immediate bodily experience. The latter may be common to many species, while the former might be an exclusive of humans because it may require some additional level of circuitry in the brain than basic sensations or emotions.

The former is what we call "thought", including the self. The latter consist of "sensations" and “emotions”.

Consciousness is the awareness of existing. Self is the awareness of lasting in space and time (of being an “i”). Sensations are bodily feelings such as pain, the color red, warmth. Emotions are non-bodily feelings such as anger, happiness, fear. Cognition encompasses the processes of reasoning, memory, learning, speaking, etc. Perception is the physical process of perceiving the world. Thought is the act of being conscious over an extended period of time.

 


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