What is consciousness?

There’s an interesting post at Big Think about consciousness:

What does it mean to be conscious? It’s a question that philosophers and scientists have puzzled over perhaps since there have been philosophers and scientists.

In his book “Consciousness Explained,” Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett calls human consciousness “just about the last surviving mystery,” explaining that a mystery is something that people don’t yet know how to think about. “We do not yet have all the answers to any of the questions of cosmology and particle physics, molecular genetics and evolutionary theory, but we do know how to think about them,” writes Dennett. “With consciousness, however, we are still in a terrible muddle. Consciousness stands alone today as a topic that often leaves even the most sophisticated thinkers tongue-tied and confused. And, as with all of the earlier mysteries, there are many who insist—and hope—that there will never be a demystification of consciousness.”

On a base level, consciousness is the fact of being awake and processing information. Doctors judge people conscious or not depending on their wakefulness and how they respond to external stimuli. But being conscious is also a neurological phenomenon, and it is part of what allows us to exist and understand ourselves in the world.

Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist from the University of Southern California who has studied the neurological basis of consciousness for years, tells Big Think that being conscious is a “special quality of mind” that permits us to know both that we exist and that the things around us exist. He differentiates this from the way the mind is able to portray reality to itself merely by encoding sensory information. Rather, consciousness implies subjectivity—a sense of having a self that observes one’s own organism as separate from the world around that organism.

“Many species, many creatures on earth that are very likely to have a mind, but are very unlikely to have a consciousness in the sense that you and I have,” says Damasio. “That is a self that is very robust, that has many, many levels of organization, from simple to complex, and that functions as a sort of witness to what is going on in our organisms. That kind of process is very interesting because I believe that it is made out of the same cloth of mind, but it is an add-on, it was something that was specialized to create what we call the self.”

It’s good to point out that consciousness is a mystery, and to emphasize that a mystery is something we don’t even know how to think about. Consciousness may in a way be a second-level or even third-level mystery. After all, no one has yet been able to come up with a watertight definition for life (this is the first-level mystery, and one I explore in the Fire Element chapter of my book). Living things can be conscious, or perhaps, as Alva Noe suggests in You are Not Your Brain, even amoebas have a primitive form of consciousness, in the sense that they interact with their environment, which has a kind of simple “meaning” for them. But what we’re talking about with consciousness here is something beyond merely processing information about the outside world. It’s as if information processing is aware of the process of information processing. Perhaps simple consciousness (responding to the environment) is a second-level mystery, and reflexive consciousness is the third-level mystery. Presumably only a conscious being is able to have a sense of what consciousness is, or to be able to assess whether another being has consciousness.

This sense of a gradation of mysteries, that I mentioned above, has a parallel in the Buddhist teaching of the five niyamas, a late Thervadin teaching of a gradation of levels of conditionality within existence — that is, a series of “laws” governing, or more properly, describing how things operate.

  1. There’s a level (the utu-niyama) of physical laws, which we know as physics and chemistry.
  2. There’s a level (the bija-niyama) of biological laws (such as evolution) which we know as biology.
  3. There’s the citta-niyama, which is the operation of simple consciousness (including much of psychology).
  4. There’s the karma-niyama, which is how self-aware consciousness operates, specifically referring to how the actions self-aware beings choose affect the degree of suffering they experience. This is the level of spiritual practice.
  5. And there’s the dharma-niyama, which is the progressive emergence of a new state of being that arises once the self-aware individual loses his or her sense of having a fixed and separate self. This is the emergence of a non-dual, enlightened consciousness.

From the utu to the citta-niyamas, we see, through evolutionary processes, conscious beings arising. They are driven by suffering, which gives rise to craving and aversion as strategies to deal with that suffering.

In the karma-niyama, we see beings who are aware that craving and aversion cause suffering, and who realize that they have a choice. Self-aware beings are able to examine, reinvent, or rebuild their own consciousness by choosing which mental states they will develop and which they will refrain from reinforcing and allow to wither.

In the dharma-niyama we see a radical move away from the inner and outer actions that cause suffering: radical because we have started to let go of our clinging to the idea that we have a self.

This teaching of the niyamas doesn’t exactly explain any mysteries. And the Buddha wasn’t into doing that. He simply accepted that here we are, thrown into the world with minds predisposed to cause ourselves suffering, and then proceeded to show how we can eradicate that suffering. What consciousness is is still a mystery. Fortunately it’s being a mystery isn’t a hindrance to spiritual progress.

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