"Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to
specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading
has been written about it." (1)

“What is consciousness?” may seem like an odd question to ask, after all, isn’t the Technicolor, 3-D experience of each and every moment of our lives sufficient answer? Our sense of ‘consciousness’ as such, is often lost in the flood of our more specific thoughts, feelings and sensations. But in those more meditative states – when our attachment to the immediate objects of awareness recedes – we begin to sense the medium of our awareness itself and approach its essential nature.

The word itself is misleading, ‘consciousness’ is not one thing but an amalgam of different, and quite distinct, modes of awareness – “a mongrel concept” as it has been called (2) that includes (3):

  • Phenomenal (P) consciousness – immediate awareness
  • Access (A) consciousness – information poised for action
  • Monitoring (M) consciousness – awareness of internal and external states
  • Self (S) consciousness – self reflection

Our mode of consciousness is quite distinct from the object of consciousness – which continuously shifts and changes. Consciousness is characterized by ‘elasticity’. Not only do we move smoothly between these different modes, our attention ‘telescopes’, allowing us to focus in and out, we can expand the boundaries of our awareness – intellectually, emotionally, aesthetically, ethically – indeed in any direction that we choose to pursue. Within the narrow field of their specialization, the reality experienced by the connoisseur is quite different from that of the average person. In developing such extended fields of awareness it has been found that we also add neural complexity and depth to the physical structure of our brains (4).

Despite our intuitive identification of the brain as the seat of consciousness, what we actually experience – one smooth, seamless flow of thoughts, feelings, and experiences – appears to have no discernible physical location in any part of our body or brain. Where, after all, are ‘we’ located? Instinctively we would say ‘somewhere behind our eyes’, but that is only true when vision is the main focus of our awareness. We appear to be, somehow, always present, but non-located (5).

The problem of how to account for our experience of unity, the so-called ‘binding problem’, currently defies scientific explanation. Nor does the loss of some specific areas of the brain drastically threaten its continuity – nor the complete replacement of every single atom in our bodies that is said to take place over a 7 year period! In the event of brain damage, entire functions appear to be able to ‘migrate’ raising the question of the precise relationship between mind and brain. People who have undergone a heart transplant sometimes acquire a whole set of the donor’s memories along with the organ!

It has become almost automatic for us to suppose that some account of physical brain processes will, eventually, ‘explain’ the fact of our having rich inner lives. We have become so accustomed to this idea that it is often hard for us to grasp the sheer improbability of our experiencing ‘rich inner lives’ at all,

"You might as well assert that numbers emerge from biscuits or ethics from rhubarb (6)"

The problem of explaining how experience arises has come to be called the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness.

The ‘Hard’ Problem of Consciousness

The philosopher, David Chalmers, differentiates between the ‘hard’ and the ‘easy’ problems of consciousness (7). The ‘easy problems’ – which, in scientific terms, are not ‘easy’ at all! – cover those cognitive and behavioral issues which should, at least in principle, be solvable by science. The ‘hard’ problem, on the other hand, is the problem of ‘phenomenality’ itself, of explaining how and why subjective experience arises in the first place,

“Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.”(8)

One simple answer to the ‘hard problem’ is the position that consciousness is one ‘kind’ of thing and physical matter, including our brain, is another. In other words, some form of mind/body dualism.

Mind/body dualism is one of the most ancient of philosophical doctrines. But with the development of cognitive neuroscience dualism has come to be despised as ‘pre-scientific’ if not entirely ‘superstitious’ (9). Most people have by now acquired the conviction that mind or consciousness ‘emerges’ from neural activity – a viewpoint called, logically enough, ‘emergentism’.

But as a result of recent philosophical debates, dualism is now gaining renewed support, especially in a form called ‘panpsychism’ – the view that everything has both a physical and a mental aspect.


Panpsychism vs Emergentism

There are two main non-theological (10) explanations for consciousness:

  • Consciousness ‘emerges’ from matter, specifically, from some undefined level of neural complexity – this view is called ‘emergentism’
  • Consciousness or mind pervades (or is present throughout) matter – this view is called ‘panpsychism’

‘Emergentism’ has become something of the ‘default’ position for the vast majority of people. As we saw, it expresses our ‘popular science/common sense’ understanding of reality: consciousness arises from the electrochemical activity of our neural circuitry. This view is also ‘economic’ in the sense that it is compatible with straightforwardly mechanistic and materialistic conceptions of reality. But popularity and compatibility with commonsense does not mean that it is right. On the contrary, ‘emergentism’ is subject to a number of major difficulties: phylogenetic (based upon the notion of evolution) and ontogenetic (based upon the origin and development of the individual).

  • The phylogenetic difficulty is that if everything evolved from simpler life forms and simpler life forms from the chemical mix of the universe – as proposed by evolutionary theory – then at what point did this ‘evolving’ matter become conscious? There appears to be no obvious answer to this question.
  • · The ontogenetic difficulty is that irrespective of what happened in the evolutionary past, the development of each new embryo raises a question: at what stage of the ontogenetic process does consciousness ‘emerge’? And if so, what causes this ‘production’ of consciousness? Again there is no obvious answer.

The outcome of these two arguments is that we are faced with a deep causal disconnect between mind and matter. Put in the simplest terms, the argument from origination states that only like things produce like effects. In other words, mental phenomena cannot arise from non-mental ‘stuff’.

Our final position, then, is that ‘emergentism’ – notwithstanding its popularity – is incoherent. Furthermore:

something akin to panpsychism is not merely one possible form of realistic physicalism, but the only possible form, and hence, the only possible form of physicalism (11).

Panpsychism, at its simplest, is the belief that mind, or consciousness, pervades matter; that’s to say, that everything has a mental or conscious aspect. This also turns out to be one of the oldest, most enduring of philosophical traditions tracing its roots back at least 2.500 years or more to the earliest roots of philosophy (12).

Whilst some form of dualism answers the question about how phenomenal experiences arises (directly in consciousness, which is quite separate from both the information it acts upon and matter), it raises a whole host of new questions. Not least of which is the question, how do mind and matter interact, what, exactly, is their relationship with each other?

On the level of advanced physics, consciousness interacts with matter in strange and mysterious ways. In quantum mechanics, decisions about how to record the results of experiments directly affect their outcome – even when those decisions are taken after the experiments have been completed! (13)

The growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the steady increase in the range of tasks that computers can undertake have all contributed to our questioning of the boundaries between artificial and human intelligence. Where exactly do the boundaries lay? Can all human attributes – including our most reflective and creative thoughts – be duplicated by machines? Could we one day invent machines capable of creating androids far superior to humans in every way – an event called the ‘technological singularity’ (14)?

Popular culture has responded to such concerns in dramatic ways, depicting the nightmarish consequences of the domination of humanity by increasingly sophisticated machines: from HAL (the murderous computer in Kubrick’s 1968 ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’) to the ‘replicants’ (of Ridley Scott’s 1982 ‘Blade Runner’) thru to the dsytopic futures of ‘Terminator’ and ‘Matrix’, in which machines have completely usurped humanity. Are any of these concerns coherent?

The Chinese Room

In 1950 the mathematician Alan Turing suggested a test, the ‘Turing Test’, for determining whether machines can think. Briefly, if you cannot tell whether a human or a machine is answering a question then machines can think (15). Needless to say no machine has ever passed the test, to date. But even if it could, would this imply that the machine could ‘think’?

This idea appears to rest upon the assumption that there is a significant parallelism between artificial intelligence and human consciousness and that consciousness is, at least theoretically, machine duplicatable. Is this belief reasonable?

Some of our simpler mental qualities – those that lend themselves to procedural definition – can certainly be duplicated by machines. But how far can this process be taken? Can machines ever be said to ‘think’ and when, if ever, can they be treated as ‘conscious’? A famous argument, John Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ argument, may help us to clarify the nature of consciousness,

Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.(16)

Searle goes on to say,

“The point of the argument is this: if the man in the room does not understand Chinese on the basis of implementing the appropriate program for understanding Chinese then neither does any other digital computer solely on that basis because no computer, qua computer, has anything the man does not have.”(17)

Certain informational and procedural components of consciousness may well be ‘computational’ (18) – and so duplicatable by computer operations – but operations such as understanding, appreciating, deriving implications and so on cannot be reduced to duplicatable procedures or operations, they are ‘intensional’ (19) or ‘meaning creating’.

For sure there are always certain signs of understanding (explanations that we can give or things that we can do), but understanding itself precedes these acts. To experience understanding is to experience the emergence of a new sense of order where it did not exist before. And this experience – the hallmark of consciousness – has a tangible, psychophysical ‘feel’ to it.

What about that ‘rich inner life’ that we all experience? The modern puzzlement over the fact of phenomenal experience goes back at least 150 years (20), and also underlies our concern with what defines and makes us what we are. How important is it?

The ‘Mary Argument’

Let’s take a look at the classic ‘Mary Argument’ in order to better understand what is at stake:

Mary the color scientist knows all the physical facts about color, including every physical fact about the experience of color in other people, from the behavior a particular color is likely to elicit to the specific sequence of neurological firings that register that a color has been seen. However, she has been confined from birth to a room that is black and white, and is only allowed to observe the outside world through a black and white monitor. When she is allowed to leave the room, it must be admitted that she learns something about the color red the first time she sees it — specifically, she learns what it is like to see that color (21).

Through her phenomenal experience Mary adds a new and unique depth to her previously ‘dry’ theoretical knowledge. One implication of this is that in order to advance our understanding we need to adopt a new and quite different model of both mind and matter and of the relationship between them.

Copyright © Peter Mark Adams 2011


(1) International Dictionary of Psychology cited by Wallace, Allan (2000) ‘The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness’

(2) Block, Ned (2002) ‘Some Concepts of Consciousness’ in ‘Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings’, David Chalmers (ed.)

(3) ibid

(4) ‘Meditation May Increase Gray Matter’ University of California - Los Angeles , 2009,May 13

(5) DeQuincey, Christian ‘Consciousness: Nonlocal or Nonlocated?’ Ions, Issue 49, August 1999

(6) McGinn, C. (1993) ‘Consciousness and cosmology: Hyperdualism ventilated’ Davies & Humphreys (Eds), Consciousness (pp. 155-77)

(7) Chalmers, D. (1995) ‘Facing up to the problem of consciousness’ Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2, 200-219. “The hard problem .... is the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience .... Even if every behavioral and cognitive function related to consciousness were explained, there would still remain a further mystery: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by conscious experience? It is this additional conundrum that makes the hard problem hard.”

(8) ibid

(9) Dennett, Daniel (1991) Consciousness Explained

(10) A third, theological, perspective would no doubt see consciousness as the outcome of the ‘ensouling’ of an embryo at a specific point in time.

(11) Strawson, Galen (2006) ‘Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism’ Journal of Consciousness Studies, 13(10-11) p.9

(12) Skrbina, David (2005) Panpsychism in the West

(13) ‘After a Short Delay, Quantum Mechanics Becomes Even Weirder’ Science Now, Feb 16th 2007

(14) Kurzweil, Ray (2005) The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

(15) Turing, Alan (1950) ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ Mind LIX (236): 433–460

(16) Searle, John ‘The Chinese Room’, in Wilson, R.A. & Keil, F. (editors) (1999) The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences

(17) ibid

(18) By ‘computational’ we mean any process with a determinate outcome, such as ‘2+2=4’

(19) Not to be confused with ‘intentional’

(20) "How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp." Huxley, T.H. (1866) Lessons in Elementary Psychology 8, p. 210

(21) Jackson, Frank (1982), "Epiphenomenal Qualia", Philosophical Quarterly, 32, 127–36