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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 2 2012: Tyler,
    In regards to consciousness and thinking, one might say that thinking is being acted out on the stage of our consciousness. Our thoughts manifest themselves on this stage.. willingly and unwillingly. Thoughts most often just flows along with our sense impressions. But, when we think about our own thinking, we discover that our own thoughts can become the object of our perceptions.
    So thinking is really the key to our free will. The more we give in to our impulses, desires, whims, etc. the less free we are. The more we are steered by our un-conscious mind the less free we are. To speak of the "free will" one could say that the will is the least free part of our being. We are most free in our thinking. We are less free in our feeling. We are least free in our will.

    Again, differentiation brings us closer to the true nature of things, it's a bit lazy to say that "all is consciousness" or the "cosmic consciousness" "we are all one" ... No....We must differentiate as to how consciousness expresses itself in the diverse phenomena in the real world. It is always within my own power to become free, but it is a constant struggle. Generally speaking I just go and get that ice cream because I really like ice cream... But "I" the thinker, "I" the self consciousness says to myself ... no, you don't really need all those calories now do you..I choose not to have that ice cream. As apposed to the animal which is a slave to his desires.
    The real important thing is here is that through our THINKING we can observe BOTH the subject and the object. The whole thought construction of what we call the "subject / object relationship" EXISTS at the mercy of thinking ! I can examine not only the object in view ... but also my own thoughts and observations of how that object works upon me ...myself... the once subject becomes myself the object... Think about it..!! Our self consciousness and its tool thinking, create the "possibility" for us to become truly FREE !!
    • Mar 6 2012: Thank you so much for your response. I greatly appreciate the input. I think that the idea of differentiating between different types of consciousness help to clear up what i am trying to answer. It is interesting to think that thinking is the key to exploring and discovering our consciousness but I suppose my main struggle lies in this process in which there is a unification of thoughts and connections to identify the self. Would you say that the process of though alone builds the foundation of the stage of consciousness or is there some missing link between this metaphysical construction and our thoughts?
      I also really like the concept that humans are more conscious than animals because they dont give in to their instinctual desires. we maintain the capacity to revise and edit our thoughts to produce the most desirable outcome.
      As my previous question broadly reflects, i guess that i am still unsure of whether the idea you present, which seems to be that consciousness is dependent on our thought capacity and will arise out of our being as an emergent property, can explain something so powerful as sentience or even explain a need for sentience. Maybe my intuition is leading me in the wrong direction, and maybe i am placing too much importance on conscious but i can't help but be intrigued by the idea of qualia of the concept of philosophical zombies. Do you think either of these ideas present valid arguments or do you think they lead down the path of a 'hard problem' that can't be answered by saying that there is something more basic to life than just matter?
      • Mar 7 2012: Tyler,
        You ask some difficult and slippery questions! I'll try the best I can to help to gain an approach of attack. When we look at the phenomenon of consciousness in man, we can see that something very special occurs at the age of 2.5-3 years. Around this age, generally speaking, we "wake up" to the fact that "I" am also an "I" We start saying "I want a candy." instead of "Tyler wants a candy." This is the awakening of the "self-conscious" Not many of us can remember back to this moment, but some people can. The little child is of course conscious and in fact very conscious. If we can again think in degrees of awareness, we might say that the child's experience of taste is much much more sensitive than a person who is much older. That which we call consciousness is more confined to the head in the grown up human being, while the child you might say tastes with his whole body. The sentience in the child is much more amplified. This you can also observe, just give a baby a lemon to suck on...:-)

        I would prefer not to call consciousness a metaphysical "construction", because it gives the impression of not being "real" or something thinking has in itself produced .... It's not simply due to our thinking that we have consciousness. It's not an emergent property. Thinking in and of itself is a real force in the world.... as is consciousness. They are existing entities in the world. Self sustaining entities that we "take part in" to different degrees through the course of the day and night. All to his or her own degree of awareness and degree of the amount of "will" that we apply in our thinking.

        As to the basics in life, we are undoubtedly much much more than just simply matter. As consciousness is often referred to as the "hard problem" .. well it is really only hard if you only operate with materialistic concepts. It's like trying to study a shoe without recognizing that it must fit on a foot. You can only get so far....
      • Mar 20 2012: This inner realm that we have access to allows for the continuity of consciousness that we experiences. Although we fall asleep at night and consciousness is "broken" or at least seems to be cut off from our daily experiences, we are still able to pick up the thread from where we left off the day before.
        Science cannot gain an explanation for this without moving away from its strictly physical model of explanation.
        The quantum physics and OOR theory seem to be getting deeper and deeper into this material explanation.The map they are studying is getting more and more down to the pixels that represent the bigger picture. Although the pixels are a part of the whole map, they are still not able to give us the bigger picture of.... where are we actually going here anyway.?
        I took the liberty to continue on this next comment section because it looks like its just you and me out here anyway.
        Should quantum theory ever think it has come so far as to be able to point its finger at a physical explanation or event of what consciousness is... and say "HERE!" ... here is consciousness!. again, this cannot be consciousness "in and of itself" What may apparently provide for the manifestation of consciousness is by no means consciousness itself. Therefor, at least the way I see it, regardless of how down to the bone quantum theory gets it will never achieve the task. It may however come to the realization of that which I will call the "next level" of our existence which is the level of life. The "life force" if you will. This next level is what I was telling about in an earlier comment. This I believe quantum physics seems to be zeroing in on... and its "discovery" will also be a major shift of the paradigm that is slowly leading us further down the road in the direction of understanding the true spiritual nature of the human being.

        I see you still have 9 days left on your discussion. Perhaps we can continue to explore some of these questions ..

        Greetings from Daniel
        • Mar 20 2012: Do you believe that these materialist view points will ever yield a reasonable explanation or do you think they will continue to encounter the same problems?
          It feels natural that if you put all of the pieces of the puzzle together, defining and explaining the functional properties that are thought to apply to consciousness, then you will be at the limit of what you are calling consciousness. Regardless of what people see in the outcome (the solved puzzle) it seems like this should be a sufficient explanation. I feel as though this is the approach that has been taken with explaining the processes of life and to this point it has been accepted as an explanation. Maybe this jigsaw puzzle metaphor is flawed, and I understand that even when the puzzle is solved there will always seem to be the missing piece of why these pieces produce an experience but I feel as though it creates a worthy, if not complete, representation of consciousness. But maybe that is just it, all we can ever obtain is a 'representation' or a correlation between what we think is consciousness and what we think creates it. I myself don't like the underlying pessimism of this reasoning and don't want to agree with the Dennet deflationary explanation. However, the concept of this 'life force' seems very appealing but in saying that I worry that it is appealing to me because I want to think my conscious experience is something greater than the millions of connections in my brain. In the book I am reading called Explaining consciousness-the hard problem there is an essay by Richard Warner that talks about the incorrigibility of humans and how we must guard against subjective distorting influences in order to produce some sense of objectivity and I feel that in this search for an 'appealing' answer that we may be succumbing to this distorting influences. It's hard to ignore the fact that consciousness requires a subjective element so maybe the fact that we are accustomed to looking at science through an
        • Mar 20 2012: ...objective lense once again distorts our image. It does seem a little backwards to distrust the only lense that we have to see the world, but at the same time it seems somewhat natural based on our observations....do you think a person who has always been alone would have a concept of consciousness unless there was someone there to prove they were in fact conscious?
    • Mar 6 2012: In response to what you said about free will, are you saying that our free will is what dictates the unconscious mind or that is it what allows for the conscious awareness of thought? Would you say that 'full' consciousness, if it is to exists, lies in our ability to uncover the entirety of our unconscious mind? Also, i can not help but wonder where the line between the unconscious and conscious are, and what controls the passage of our thoughts across these planes of consciousness. What are your thoughts on this?
      • Mar 7 2012: The degree that thinking can illuminate the unconsciousness motives for what we do determines the degree in which we are free beings. We are not free if we are driven through life by unconscious motivations. Egoism is perhaps a very common unconscious motivation. The need for love is another. The need for respect is very strong... especially in some cultures. We are at all times pulsating with different conscious and unconscious motivations for what we do. To draw a "line" between the two would be like trying to paint a painting on the surface of the ocean. Our thoughts though are amazing things. We have within our power to search our own soul for these impulses that can take control of us. We do however need to take a strong and decisive step in the direction of gaining control over our own being. Think about the following example

        If you lay a 2x4 down on the ground and try to walk over it, it would not be so difficult would it? You could almost do it blindfolded. But now take the very same 2x4 and elevate it 10 meters and then try to walk across it... it would suddenly become very difficult. Your movements become stiff and stakkato. Why does this happen? You might answer well ... the fear of falling down of course... but isn't it rather the fear that is creating an "over-awareness" of your feet on the board. Consciousness becomes "awake" in your feet ... where it should be "sleeping" ... if you had to think about every step you take it wouldn't be so easy to walk .. would it?
        These are explanations that I'm sure you have never heard before and perhaps are getting a little too esoteric for a comment on TED. But when we try to understand these questions in this way, we can find clues as to what consciousness really is.

        Thinking can be compared to being awake
        Feeling can be compared to dreaming.
        Willing can be compared to being asleep.

        To operate and function in daily life there must be a harmony in these three elements.

        Catch you later!
      • Mar 21 2012: Hi Tyler,

        The strictly material viewpoint will only take science so far. Sooner or later it will have to look itself in the eyes and say "There is something more here" we with our physical tools have now reached the very bottom of material existence and still that which we call consciousness slips past our fingers. That is the point where science will perhaps choose to step across the line into the metaphysical or the non-material aspect of existence. There is really no real reason that science cannot allow itself to make this step. It stands in complete lack of methodology of course. Perhaps by studying such phenomena as NDE's and OBE's can at least give a sort of direction towards the recognition of the immaterial world. I thinks this is not so very far off in the future of this type of study.

        Back to the nature of consciousness. As something experiential, it is not so easy to "define" is it? I mean, if I ask you to define the taste of a cheeseburger. You can use a million adjectives and still you wont be able to convey to me just how the taste of the cheeseburger really is. Word cannot convey it. Even the simplest things like sweet. What is sweetness? So the word Consciousness becomes an enormous hurdle to explain in words alone. The phenomena must be observed and compared, observed and compared, and possibly even use the good old scientific method and reproduce experiments where we can study how the mystery of consciousness reveals itself. Consciousness in many cases leaves its footprint in the material world.

        We must also trust our Thinking. We must trust the scientific method. I'm in support of the "method" But it can be broadened to also encompass the bigger picture that would include the immaterial world. Thinking is of course quite immaterial. So are feeling. There is no physical correlate for them. No one will ever be able to point at the neuron that gives us this or that thought.

        The trust in both our thinking as well as our observations ... cont
        • Mar 22 2012: Hmm, I had never realized the impact of thought in consciousness before. It seems like a hard thing to overlook now but when it comes down to it, it is our only tool to make any realizations. I had also not thought of thinking as the thing which divides subjectivity and objectivity, but it definitely makes sense. It sort of seems like consciousness could be some illusion created by our thoughts.
          Would you say there Descartes was in a way correct based on the nonphysical nature of thoughts and consciousness? If there is physical and nonphysical then to some degree his dualist approach was right
          I do have one question, and you can choose to answer it or not because it sort of drifts away from the whole conversation, but if you were to break consciousness, as a topic, into various parts, what would those parts be? After looking back through the conversation, I'm still sort of struggling to figure out how I should break up the presentation I need to give and was wondering what aspects of consciousness you think are more important or whether there are obvious divides you see in the topic

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