TED Conversations

High School Student,

This conversation is closed.

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!


Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • Mar 25 2012: Tyler The easy problems are the solvable ones mainly in the realm of neurophysiology/neurochemistry, genetics and information processing/systems theory. Powerful instruments (fmri, petscan, and others) have allowed a glimpse of the workings of the living brain and, with the acceleration of information and more importantly, the free exchange of it, you may, in your lifetime see these "easy problems" solved.
    Then there is the "Hard Problem", a term coined by David Chalmers, an Aussie philosopher. The term is used to describe the problem of how this dense, rich, provocative and deeply personal "experiential" awareness gives us a feeling of a unified whole with the location "i". Some believe that it is a problem without a solution and others feel that it may be understood through the careful and continuing study of the natural world and the human nervous system.
    Go to the online journal ResearchGate: http://www.researchgate.net/topic/Neuroscience/
    You may need to start a free account, I'm not sure.

    This is an academic level discussion so have your dictionary handy.
    • Mar 26 2012: im just waiting for a confirmation email that my account has been approved. thank you for the source....do you believe that the easy problems will help to further understand the hard problem or do you think the hard problem is something that is in a whole different realm of understanding?
      • Mar 26 2012: Tyler Your question is a thoughtful one and deserves an answer. Conceptualizing and formulating even the right questions (forget the answers for the moment) concerning the hard problem is difficult. Why Chalmers' ideas gained traction in philosophical discourse is because he took the most difficult problems in modern science concerning the nature of the (highly complex) human mind (nervous system) and concluded that those are the "easy problems", thereby inferring that to understand the "hard problem" we might need to, as you have suggested, address a "whole different realm of understanding". Human knowledge is perspectival and historical and what is taken for "truth" in one era and under one set of perspectives often needs reconfiguring as more reasonable interpretations become available. Don't confuse this "whole different realm of understanding" as something mystical that is not accessible to our cognitive apprehension but rather a shift in perspective, allowing us to perceive something that's already under our noses. There are many examples of this in the history of reason. The earth centric system of Ptolemy, although being very sophisticated and conforming to observable data of the time was replaced by the Copernican model of heliocentrism as a more complete system with greater explanatory power. The social and intellectual consequences of such a shift was dramatic in that it threatened the conceptual habituation of our "special" place in our known universe. We were not the center of the universe any longer. This may be a problem similar to our present dilemma concerning consciousness while just a slight shift in our perspective might allow for the "hard problem" to be solvable after all. I imagine answering the easy questions (wether these answers sum up to any insight into the hard problem or not) may have some impact in understanding the hard problem of consciousness.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.