What is consciousness? Obviously, this is a very difficult question to answer since no one really knows what it is, neither scientists nor philosophers. The standard definition of consciousness, kindly provided by Wikipedia, is: “the state or quality of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself,” which really does not offer much of an explanation. Consciousness is also sometimes seen as the subjective factors of our human experience (thoughts, reactions, pain, emotions, or everything that can only be experienced by you and not by another person) as opposed to our objective experience, which is the material world and accessible for viewership by everyone. This question had interested me for a very long time, and I finally did some research and formulated a coherent opinion and perspective about it, although I am still very confused.
First, I want to discuss what philosophers call the brain in a vat thought experiment. Imagine your brain being suspended in a vat and hooked up to monitor that sends electrical impulses into the brain that mimic actual perceptions of a physical world and real experiences. In reality, it happens in a very similar way: information coming from our five senses is sent as impulses by neurotransmitters from the eyes, ears, skin etc into the brain, which processes the information and presents a perception of the real world. Based on our limitations in knowledge about consciousness and the brain, we cannot know if the image of the physical world presented by our brains is actually there. For all we know, our existence could be brain in vats. From her arise the questions that govern the quest into this very big question: What is the relation between our interpretation of our sense and consciousness? Can consciousness work in isolation or does it have to be viewed through a greater context based on the factors that influence it? What are those factors? Where does the objective computation of the brain end, and where does the subjective consciousness begin? We know it’s there, but what is it?
“What is it about the biophysics of highly excitable brain matter that turns gray goo into the glorious surround sound and Technicolor that is the fabric of everyday experience?”- Scientific American
Let’s look at science, or, more specifically, the cerebellum of the brain, which is responsible for motor control and posture and is the most concentrated part of the brain in terms of neurons. When that part of the cerebellum is injured or surgically removed, it might be more difficult for us to play piano or rock climb, but our ability to think, have emotions, process information, or recall memories is not altered. Additionally, if the spinal cord is injured, the amount of active neurotransmitters going to the brain decreases and the person experiences severe physical limitations, but their cognitive abilities stay the same. This means that consciousness does not arise solely from excited neuron activity, and it is not inhibited by physical limitations. This is because different parts of the brain are responsible for processing and storing information. But does that mean that the parts of the brain where information is processed, the posterior cortex for example, is where the consciousness resides? Is consciousness just another function of the brain? What if your brain is separated from our body, will it still have a consciousness?
Here’s how I see it: If you think about what the world really is, it is just a collection of moving atoms and energy in the form of periodic waves of light and sound. Based on the laws of physics, the brain unconsciously computes this information, which we call our five senses, into something like a simplified list of the world around us. A disturbance of air particles at a specific frequency is computed to a specific pitch of sound, and a frequency of light is computed to color. This is something I’ll call algorithmic reasoning. But where consciousness comes in is in the ability to analyze each specific feature in our visualization of the world and to create a uniform image these features (similar to connecting the puzzle pieces to create on big image), and then deduces a unique response or reaction to this image. Each of the features of our existences are received and analyzed through different parts of the brain separately, for example the color and the shape of something, but we don’t respond to the color and shape of something separately, we respond to each cognitive computation as a whole, based on plausible reasoning. I don’t want to say it’s logic, because our consciousness does not follow the laws of logic, it takes into account personal desires and memories, which are stored in other parts of the brain. So, in essence, consciousness is what makes us human.
In short, the brain is the physical manifestation of our cognitive capabilities, and consciousness uses the brain’s abilities in order to make sense of the world and to create a mental model of how to navigate through life. Here is an analogy: say you want to build something. The materials and the directions on how to use each of the materials is presented by the brain. Consciousness takes those materials and instructions and builds something based on its own taste and perception of what the finished product would look like. Here is another example: you hear a bird. The frequency of that sound reaches you ear, the brain receives and analyzes that sound, telling you that it came from a bird, how far away it is, and the direction it came from. The consciousness takes that sound, looks at the other factors of your physical surroundings and looks at your memories, and then decides whether to smile or scowl, whether you laugh or turn away.
“Consciousness, I know you’re in there, please tell me who you are!”
Sources: An article from Scientific American: What is Consciousness? ; an article from Philosophy Now: A Role For Consciousness ; and my thoughts.