Consciousness is fascinating and I keep coming back to it. It is personally verifiable in that a person knows that he or she is conscious, but it is difficult if not impossible to tell if a person is conscious from the outside.
When you talk to someone, you and that person exchange words. You say something, and they respond. Their response is to what you say, and it appears to show that the person is a conscious being.
It’s not as easy as that, however, because it is conceivable that the person is a zombie (in the philosophical sense) and his or her responses are merely programmed reactions based on your words. In other words he or she is not a conscious being.
It seems to me that the best counter to this suggestion is that I am a conscious being and I am no different in all discernible ways from others. It is unreasonable to suggest I am the only conscious being anywhere and that all others are zombies.
Of course this leaves open the suggestion that some people may be philosophical zombies, but that then raises the question of what the difference is, and how can one detect it. William of Occam would probably wield his razor and conclude that, if one can’t tell, one might as well assume that there are no zombies, as assuming that there are zombies adds a (probably) unnecessary assumption to the simple theory that all humans are conscious beings.
It follows that consciousness is probably an emergent phenomenon related to the complexity and functioning of the brain. It also follows that lower animals, such as dogs, cats and apes are also probably conscious entities, though maybe to a lesser extent that we are.
The only way we can directly study consciousness is by introspection, which is more than a bit dubious as it is consciousness studying itself. We can indirectly study consciousness by studying others who we assume to be conscious, maybe when they have been rendered unconscious by anaesthetics and are “coming round” from them.
In addition, consciousness can be indirectly studied using mind altering drugs or meditation. However we are mainly dependant on verbal reports from those studied this way, and such reports are, naturally, subjective.
When we introspect, we are looking inwards, consciously studying our own consciousness. There are therefore limits on what we can find out, as the question arises “How much about itself can a system find out?”
A system that studies itself is limited. It can find out some things, but not all. It’s like a subroutine in a bigger program, in that it knows what to do with inputs and it creates appropriate output for those inputs. Its sphere of influence is limited to those processes written into it, and there is no way for it to know anything about the program that calls it.
A subroutine of a larger program uses the lexical, syntactical and logical rules that apply to the program as a whole, though it may have its own rules too. It shares the concept of strings, number, and other objects with the whole program, but it can add its own rules too.
The Universe is like the subroutine in many ways. The subroutine has inputs and outputs and processes the one into the other. In this Universe we are born and we die. In between we spend our lives.
An aware or conscious subroutine would know that it processes input and creates outputs, but it would have no idea why. We know that we are born, we live and we die. Apart from that we have no idea why.
This sort of implies that while we may use introspection to investigate some aspects of consciousness we will always fall short of understanding it completely. We may be able to approach an understanding asymptotically however – we might get to understand consciousness to the 90% level, so it would not be a total waste of time to study it.
Consciousness seems to be more than a single state, and the states seem to merge and divert without any actions on our part. For instance, when I am driving there is a part of me that is driving the car and a part of me that is route planning, and maybe a part of me that is musing on the shopping that I intend to do.
The part of me that is driving is definitely aware of what is happening around me. I don’t consciously make the decision to slow down when other traffic gets in the way, but the part of me that is driving does so.
Similarly the part that is route finding is also semi-autonomous – I don’t have to have a map constantly in my mind, and don’t consciously make a decision to turn right, but the navigator part of my consciousness handle that by itself.
Those parts of my mind are definitely conscious of the areas in which they are functioning, because if they were not conscious, they would not be able to do their job alone and would frequently need to move to the front of my consciousness disrupting my musing about my shopping.
It’s like part of my consciousness are carved off and allowed to perform their functions autonomously. However if an emergency should arise, then these parts are quickly jolted back into one.
The parts of my mind are definitely conscious as, at a low level, I am aware of them. I’m aware of the fact that I’m following that blue car, and I’m aware that I have to turn left in 200m or so. I’m also aware of my shopping plans, while I’m aware of the music on the radio.
While it sounds scary that I’m not totally concentrated on my driving, I believe that this sort of has to happen. If I was totally concentrated on my driving, I would need to stop at every intersection so that I could decide which way to turn.
I would need have my shopping list completely sorted out, to the point of knowing which stores I am going to before even getting the car, and I would have to plan my route precisely. This would not allow for those occasions when passing by something or some shop reminds you that you need something that is not on your shopping list.
This splitting of consciousness allows us to perform efficiently. The only downside is that splitting things too much can result in us becoming distracted. And that is the reason we shouldn’t fiddle with the radio or use cellphones when driving.