What is Consciousness?

Meaning and Definition of Consciousness

The word “consciousness” is related to various concepts and fields of knowledge. There are several everyday phenomena that we associate with this notion, and it is not so simple to present a definition that explains them all.

Some characteristics of what is now called “consciousness” have previously been addressed by many other concepts, such as the personality, the soul, the mind, and the self.

The common understanding of consciousness is more related to Psychology, which understands it as an apperception of external phenomena and mental states and processes carried out by an organism.

It is the state in which one is conscious, that is, awake and attentive to what is happening, and not sleeping or passing out. However, in Philosophy of Mind, the use of this word is related to the study and explanation of the possibility of having conscious experiences.

When René Descartes proposed the distinction between body and mind in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), he initiated a metaphysical discussion about the nature of mental phenomena.

Although phenomenology indicates that aspects of the mind are perceived differently from how we perceive the body, we know, on the other hand, that there is only a mind when there is a properly functioning brain.

Recently, motivated in large part by behaviorism, new responses to the study of consciousness have emerged.

These studies, developed by the cognitive sciences (especially neuroscience, psychology and philosophy) consist of investigations at the intersection between what we know about the physical (or natural) world and the phenomena of consciousness.

The new forms of explanation can be divided into two main fields: the reductionist perspectives are those that affirm an identification between mental processes and brain processes, while the non-reductionist proposals criticize or revise this position.

Explaining the functioning of the brain or identifying its functions and relationships with other organs of the body still offers some difficulties.

Consciousness, on the other hand, as a constant element in all human experience, remains a great mystery and is not easily explained. This explanation, today, focuses more on the scientific approach than on philosophical speculation.

We can see this in what the famous philosopher David Chalmers (1995) called the easy problems and the hard problems of consciousness. The easy ones are those that there is little doubt that they can be explained by scientific studies, while the difficult ones are those that resist such an explanation.

“It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how these systems are subjects of experience is surprising.

Why is it that when our cognitive systems are involved in processing visual and auditory information, we have visual and auditory experiences: the quality of a very dark blue, the feeling of middle C?

How can we explain why there is such a thing as entertaining a mental image or experiencing an emotion?

It is widely accepted that experiences arise from physical bases, but we don’t have a good explanation of why and how they arise.

And why should physical processing provide a richer inner life? It doesn’t seem objectively reasonable for him to do it, but he still does it.”

Explaining deliberative behavior, mental processing of information and calculations, and what happens during sleep are the easy problems.

Our brain is part of the physical (or material) world and can be studied in many ways, but the experiences we become aware of are so varied and complex that we cannot fully describe the qualitative character of these experiences:

Somehow we have to accommodate to the obvious fact that in having a headache we are subject to a kind of conscious experience, an experience with certain special perceivable qualities. Philosophers often refer to these qualities as qualia.

Characteristics of our conscious mental life that we call upon when we contemplate what it feels like to feel pain, or to see the sunrise at Uluru, or to bite into a jalapeno pepper.

Theories that explain the nature of mind and conscious mental phenomena can be divided into physicalist (or materialist) and dualist.

Physicalist theories tend to be reductionist, admitting that mental states are identical to brain states or that they can explain their functioning.

Dualism provides a different approach, since it would be possible to explain that mental states are such that they arise or are constituted by the brain, without it being possible to propose a reduction of a mental state to brain states.

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