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High School Student,

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What exactly is or defines the self-aware, subjective, and phenomenal experience we call consciousness?

I am a senior in high school and and doing a 100-hour research project on consciousness. I am currently reading the book Self Comes to Mind by Antonio Damasio, but have yet to find clear answers as to something i can label as consciousness. Maybe the problem is that i am trying to label something that inherently cannot be defined or something that is greater than any definition seeing as any form of language or any concept of defining an object results from what we know to be consciousness. I know that Buddhism and Hinduism touch upon the concept of non-self and many-sidedness, and in a sense get at the concept of consciousness but in the physics realm, consciousness becomes something entirely new under the pretexts of general relativity and quantum mechanics. I'm not sure whether these ideas are applicable to the conscious experience in which they were created but maybe they point to some greater truths about what our self-awareness truly is. In my search for discovering consciousness, i have found that it very much overlaps with the idea of 'free will' and 'existential relative liberties,' however, i dont know if these are the same as consciousness or just a product of it. I have also come across the idea of the 'soul,' if it exists, what realm or dimension does it exist in and when or how is it formed? I suppose religion and philosophy try to answer these questions but i am unsure whether or not modern neuroscience will ever be able to get at a concrete answer. Maybe my original question is unanswerable and will only lead to dead ends, but i am curious to see what these dead ends will be. I would greatly appreciate any input on the topic! Thanks!


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  • Mar 19 2012: Tyler,
    I really expected to see a lot more activity here on your discussion. It's interesting to see what subjects awaken the interest of the TED community. Consciousness, God, religion, evolution and the like are usually really debated a lot.
    I had a similar title about a year ago and had around 650 comments.... half of them perhaps my own though, .. It was called What is the nature of consciousness? Is consciousness merely a by product of the physical brain? I believe you can go in on my profile and read the comments if you wish. We really got carried away some places. We even started debating in rhyme.
    Good luck on your project!

    Greetings from Daniel
    • Mar 19 2012: Haha I was hoping it would too. Thank you for all of your comments though, they were extremely helpful! I will definitely check out your conversation as well.
      Just out of curiosity, what is your take on the quantum approach to consciousness? I've been reading a bit about the orchestrated objective reduction theory and although im having a little trouble grasping it, it seems like a fairly sound argument.
      • Mar 20 2012: Hello again Tyler, PART 1
        Out of an honest respect for your question, I made a rather short attempt to grasp the OOR approach to the mystery of consciousness. I too must admit that it is not easy to grasp.
        But what always strikes me most in such theory is that the search continues only deep and deeper into a material explanation of the non-material phenomena of consciousness. Perhaps the search will lead science eventually to the point where there is no material substance left to research. This is sciences destiny.
        To me, It could be likened to going into a restaurant and studying the menu, lets say we want a hamburger. Here it stands written. 1/4 pound beef, juicy, fresh, lettuce, pickle, mayonnaise, sesame seed bun, etc. We read all the details. Write them down. And then we eat the menu. In tasting it, in the end, it tastes like paper. We go down the street to another restaurant... same procedure.... but the menu here taste like cardboard. ... hmmm..? Next restaurant...
        The fact that consciousness is by nature something that must be experienced and experiences are not so easily weighed and measured, this fact alone makes consciousness already beyond the reach of the material tools science has at its disposition. Whatever I experienced yesterday is mine and mine alone. You cannot reproduce it and make it subject to the scientific method proof by reproducing the experience again and again. It happened once, that time, to me, in the way I experienced it at just that moment. It therefore lives in my consciousness and mine alone. Furthermore, I have within my own ability to recall the experience, detail for detail and re-experience the event all within my own being. Even to the point of recalling the joy or the sorrow that the event brought on at that moment yesterday. This ability is quite a real factor within our being and without it we would be helpless to meet our daily challenges even of the simplest nature.

        Continued below
      • Mar 21 2012: Continued from above. PART 2

        The trust in our thinking and our sense perceptions is really the ONLY foundation we have to gain knowledge. Really! Think about it. We have no other tools. We can make measurements, compare statistics with the most advanced instruments etc. etc. but in the end, it all boils down to our own thinking and the energy or "will" we engage in this thought process. Thinking is a real forces in the universe. Consciousness is its carrier. It is the activity of our own thinking that "discovers" consciousness and particularly "self consciousness" because it lies so close up to our own world of experiences. We experience ourselves within ourselves...
        A person who has never been a part of a social organism or society would without a doubt be a very special individual. You might like to google the name Kasper Hauser and read the most interesting story of how he was kidnapped as a very young child and kept in isolation for almost 12 years. The individuality is of course severely hindered in its development. Consciousness is perhaps what one might even call enhanced to a high degree. The senses are in a way undisturbed, untouched. Imagine the sense apparatus of the hearing or seeing of a new born child. They are incredibly "sensitive" to light, color and sound. Imagine then a boy of 12 with the senses of a little baby.

        I'm just kind of dumping out my thoughts here Tyler in response to your last comment. Hope you don't mind the lengthy and long winded comments.

        The fact that within the nature of our thinking, thinking itself has the ability to examine and adjust and reevaluate its own conclusions! This is really a most amazing thing and yet philosopher's such as Kant and others have never really given credit to this obvious fact. That thinking is neither objective or subjective. Thinking itself has in fact created "BOTH" subject and object. Do you see this point..?? This is a very very important point to understand.

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