What is consciousness? What is the true nature of consciousness? How does a being of consciousness approach an interrogation of his/her own consciousness? These are just a few of the many mesmerizing questions that arise when we contemplate the nature of consciousness. Ask any two random people about what they think the nature of consciousness is and they will almost certainly have dissimilar opinions on the matter.
It turns out that our perceptions of reality are as unique as our fingerprints. We all have fingerprints, just as we all have conscious awareness, but our fingerprints are just as individually unique as our conscious awareness (or lack of awareness) is. So can we ever achieve a working definition of consciousness?
“It is not possible to specify precise objective criteria for identifying consciousness,” wrote G. W. Farthing in The Psychology of Consciousness. “Nor can consciousness be given a clear functional definition, since its specific function within the mind system is still a matter of controversy.” It is astounding how complex it is to give a working definition for consciousness, and yet it is so simple for us to feel what it is like to be conscious.
Defining consciousness is like breaking down reality: it’s an infinite progression. Being conscious and living in reality is simple because that is what we are designed to do. Indeed, that is what we are doing. But once we attempt to define either, a rift between two different realities seems to appear and all reasoning becomes bias and myopic.
Nevertheless, attempting a definition is important. In Psychology: the Science of Mental Life George Miller said, “Consciousness is a word worn smooth by a million tongues.” Indeed, words create an interesting dynamic in the mind.
Not only are they symbols of the reality that we usually take for granted; they are also a psycho-physical stimulus that induces a physiological reaction by their mere conception. The problem with such a word as ‘consciousness’ is that it represents our most cherished possession: ourselves.
Our notion of consciousness is our sanity, literally. Without a stable definition we are lost. It is almost an evolutionary must that we define consciousness in a certain way so as to maintain our delicate grip on reality. But this is where things go awry. And this is where our notion of consciousness might become a snake that eats its own tail (i.e. religion and dogmatic ideologies).
At any moment we are consciously aware of only a limited part of all the stimuli – external and internal, micro and macro – of what we might potentially be aware. A selection process is necessary because of the limited capacity of consciousness and working memory (finite perception). So what could be happening outside of our perceptual capacities? And does it even matter? Consciousness seems as simple as a brain and its physiological connections reacting fluidly with and within an environment. But how much of this process is mere perceptual assumption? And what is the overall understanding of this process?
Steven Pinker’s Surface Perception Module accounts for how the brain makes up for any missing information on the perception of objects by explaining how the brain ‘assumes’ the ‘world’ it is living in. If the brain did not assume certain rules for its environment then it would have to filter through an infinite amount of data which would make survival impossible. Instead, it does assume finite aspects of its reality, oscillating objects into perceptual existence, thereby making it possible to traverse reality and bring meaning to it through precise perceptual injections of finitude.
The problem with the scientific study of consciousness, however, is that it is typically broken down into only three categories: physiological, cognitive, and experiential. There’s no doubt that these are all aspects of consciousness, but they are by no means separate; nor are they the only ones. Consciousness study cannot (except in a generic sense) be systematized lest important data is lost. There is something lost between the physiological and the cognitive when we bring our labels to bear and neatly pigeonhole our ‘discoveries’ underneath them.
Conscious events are more than what our science can currently explain in a rational way. Like particle physics cannot explain what is light. They may postulate light’s particle-like nature, they may postulate its wave-like nature, but in the end the phenomena of light is just as systematically indescribable as the nature of consciousness.
Similarly, psychologists researching the physiological aspects of consciousness may postulate its neurological patterns, its cognitive aspect, and its functions of memory and perception, but in the end consciousness is just as systematically indescribable as light is. Only in the most generic sense can consciousness or light be explained systematically.
“Conscious awareness” writes philosopher-psychologist Owen Flanagan “is as ubiquitous as light, sound, heat, and color. Indeed, one might argue that it is even more ubiquitous than any of these, since there is light and sound and heat and color only insofar as these phenomena are revealed in experience.” Insofar as consciousness cannot be explained systematically it can be explained perceptually.
Consciousness is what we are aware of in regards to our relationship with reality, both inner and outer. Being aware of that which is ‘out there’ is a process of objectivity, whereas being aware of an ‘inner-state’ is a process of subjectivity. Perception seems to be that which ties it all together, as people who perceive (subjectively) devise a perception (objectively) of the environment around them.
So what about the experience of that which is ‘out there’? Is conscious perception, together with all its prejudices and biases, enough to discern what is ‘actually’ happening in the cosmos? The rift between perception and actual reality starts with the assumptions that we have regarding our environment. There’s the way we perceive our environment, and then there’s the way our environment ‘actually’ is. In order to get closer to the latter, we must focus upon a science that dissects reality itself. That science is found in modern physics, particularly in the field of quantum mechanics.