Definition Of Consciousness

Very interesting alternative refactored to LeibnizianDefinitionOfConsciousness.

I think the problem of defining consciousness is based on the same problem you have in defining Nature (DefinitionOfNatural). The modern science world-view believes in the possibility of extrapolating the system of physical fundamentals to more complex systems of biology, psychology and in the end social-systems. It is called the unification of science.

In everyday life, you normally do not use the fundamental system; it is always a system of reduced complexity. In these systems, things and processes are not fundamental. But in this modern world-view, you can theoretically analyse such things and process down to the fundamental principles. Starting with a definition of consciousness that fits in a psychological system, you lose somewhere on your way down the meaning of the word. There is no sense in using consciousness for any fundamental system. The Question is where to stop. Where happens something qualitatively new on the way up to more complexity, that gives the right to use a new word?

I think it happens when you have to build processes that depend on the knowing that interaction with an environment has consequences in the future, called decisions. Of course, you always can destroy them through analysis. You cannot go deeper to understand consciousness; you would simply lose it. And I do not think you have to go higher in complexity to understand consciousness in the common way.

My try at a definition is: A system which makes decisions is a conscious system.

-- CarstenKreyser

Why can only a system be conscious? Why not a process? Can't the wind stirring the leaves this way or that make a decision? And what is a decision? Is a flipped coin conscious? Or if I can't make my mind up about what to do, have I suddenly lost consciousness?

A conscious process would make no sense. Your example implicates a world-view where the wind is a system, so it does not fit. Decisions are "processes that depend on the knowing that interaction with an environment has consequences in the future", so a flipped coin is not conscious. The definition does not say that a conscious system has to make always decisions. -- CarstenKreyser

I am very sorry, you are right with your first question. I made a mistake with the meaning of words. The definition has to be: A system which makes decisions has consciousness. Processes that are based on decisions are conscious. Sorry. -- CarstenKreyser

By that definition, this program is "conscious":


Maybe the given definition is misleading and there are better ones. But in my opinion, every useful definition has to be based on a description of the border between systems I tried to explain above. This is the border that separates natural and not natural, consciousness and not consciousness (systems with and without sense --> NiklasLuhmann). Discovered in ancient times as a distinction between rationality and not rationality to separate humans from animals, we know in the present day it is not so easy; in many cases, there are degrees of both sides of the border. The main point of intention may have changed a little bit with time, but the border is the still the same. Of course, it is not a definition that helps to construct consciousness or not natural processes; there will be hard work to do to find this border. Maybe we will never find it exactly, but that is not a problem of defining.

In history, there was no real problem about it (only in finding the right words), because there was a real gap of knowing at the border; Nature-Science and Social-Science were total different. Today, we can theoretically cross this border (of course not knowing every step in detail) and some people do without remarking it. I think that is the basic reason for a lot of Confusion.

For example, the constructor of an artificial consciousness would maybe not know, because he has theoretically every process in detail in mind and what he not knows depends only on high complexity. First the user, who not know about the details will remark on the consciousness, because consciousness first exists in the new system of reduced complexity. It is not only unimportant to know how a process works in detail, it would destroy the meaning of consciousness. In everyday life, it is inefficient and most of the time impossible to think in such details, so consciousness and not natural processes exist.

-- CarstenKreyser

Previous definitions:

See WhatIsConsciousness first.

Definition of the term. :) Conscious behavior is that more similar to average awake people than dead people or animals or computers etc.

A being is conscious when it can reason about its existence, instead of merely existing. Thus plants are not, while dogs are - dogs can even lie, which means they can make a prediction about their behavior and the behavior of others. It all boils down to the ability to use the if concept - if I do A, X happens, otherwise Y happens; I want Y, so I should not do A, applied to a future behavior. -- PeteHardie

First things first: Are we going to define it in terms of observable things or non-observable things? If we want the definition to be useful, I strongly suggest defining it in terms of observable behavior. I.e. I know X is conscious because I saw it do Y.

Definitions that revolve around unobservable things such as 'thinks' or 'feels' are going to end up in an unresolvable argument. I can almost guarantee that one party will say "no animals (other than humans) are conscious" and another party will say "some animals (other than humans) are conscious". Without a definition based on observations, there will be no way to resolve this dispute.

If we come up with a definition based on observation, we can address the question "Are humans even conscious?" which is not possible to thoroughly address unless the definition is based on observations.

On that note, many consider TuringTests to be the most useful DefinitionOfConsciousness. Properly-conducted ones of course.

The above argument presupposes Behaviourism. Behaviourism maintains that "unobservables" like thinking and feeling can be reduced away, possibly even denied existence. Behaviourism is dead among psychologists and for very good reasons; it is quack science driven by political ideology. The belief that humans lack thoughts and feelings has obvious political repercussions, no matter how academic people may pretend this belief to be.

The argument does not suppose that thinking and feeling can be "reduced" into things which are observable (to someone other than the thinker or feeler); it merely suggests that it is possible to define consciousness in a way that is useful but does not make reference to thinking and feeling. In fact, such a definition would be useful in large part precisely because it did not make such reference. -- DanielKnapp

There are problems in the observation of emotion since humans project their own repressed emotions onto anything they perceive of as blank templates. Routine examples include one's pets, one's children and any minorities one does not belong to. These problems are surmountable without resorting to the odious doctrine that thinking beings are unfeeling machines.

On to Peter's observation. I believe that chimps are able to reason about the consequences of their own actions and even the motivation of their fellows. This is a necessary component of any calculated deception. Deception is easy to observe. -- RichardKulisz

What do you mean by "observable"? How can I distinguish observable from unobservable if I don't already know what consciousness is? -- BenKovitz

Hint - before starting in on DefinitionOfObservable?, please see below. (Actually, I don't really want to start a discussion of DefinitionOfObservable?. It was just a rhetorical question to point out a possible StolenConceptFallacy. -- bk)

A magpie was observed to sharply tug the fur of a sleeping cat's tail, and immediately retire to a nearby vantage point, apparently much amused.

Solipsism shows that is is impossible to prove anything exists outside of oneself, so we're kinda stuck here. We will need to use induction, so what are our assumptions? others? -- PeteHardie

Anyone really interested in this stuff can check out the work of DavidChalmers.

PiersAnthony summed it up quite well, I thought - "Consciousness is the feedback of self-awareness". So without self-awareness, you don't have consciousness, and with it, you do (but they are not the same thing). -- GavinLambert

Indeed, they aren't the same thing. But saying that consciousness is the feedback of self-awareness isn't saying anything interesting. It doesn't say anything about the nature of consciousness. All it says is that after people became conscious (not aware but conscious) of others, they in turn became conscious of themselves. At best, this is a vacuous truth since it doesn't even say anything about why people became conscious of others at all. At worst, it's completely wrong because awareness of other people doesn't imply consciousness of them. For example, a psychopath is aware of others but not conscious of them. To a psychopath, humans are just meat animals without feelings or thoughts. In fact, it's not even certain that consciousness of others comes before consciousness of oneself. It's plausible but by no means proven.

So I find it difficult to understand how PiersAnthony "summed up" anything at all. -- rk

That's not what he said (he was speaking in the voice of one of his characters, so this might not even be his personal belief); he said that "if you think you are conscious, then you are conscious. That's what consciousness is, the feedback of self-awareness." I don't see how you made the leap from "self-awareness" to "awareness of others". The statement says nothing about the actual or perceived consciousness of other people, only of the one doing the thinking. So by this definition, I know that I am conscious, but I'd have to ask anyone else before I could be sure that they were. (If they weren't, they wouldn't understand the question.) -- GavinLambert

I didn't know what he (or you) meant by 'feedback' in "feedback of self-awareness" so I was giving you the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, that only got you as far as "It's either trivially true or wrong". Now that you tell me 'feedback' in that context refers to "I think I'm conscious therefore I am conscious" then it's trivial, vacuous and utterly miserably wrong.

It is not true that consciousness is the quality of claiming to be conscious nor even that everyone has sufficient understanding of it to answer basic questions about it. To claim so (or endorse PiersAnthony in his claims) is to deny the excellent work which philosophers have done on cognition and consciousness over the years. The equivalent in physics would be to claim that nothing about quantum mechanics is worth learning. If you don't know anything about a field then it's okay to say stupid things about it (to an extent). But to then trivialize the entire academic field because you want to justify yourself, that's showing great disrespect to many people and to the entire intellectual endeavour. -- rk

Sheesh, don't get so upset. I know I'm not even a dabbler in the field, let alone an expert, and I doubt PiersAnthony is either. I was merely stating something that appeared in one of his (fiction) books, and how my interpretation of it made a certain amount of sense (and was easily understood by lay people). In no way was I trying to disrespect or trivialize anyone else's opinion or research. -- GavinLambert

Sorry for misunderstanding. Feel free to remove my rant. -- rk

I think I can simplify the definition from the top to:

A being is conscious when it acts anaturally.

If I use the DefinitionOfNatural. -- GunnarZarncke

Even if you used the questionable DefinitionOfNatural, the above statement is false.

Why are you redefining common words?

Sorry, I didn't intend to redefine. I just put forward an idea. I do not have a better definition and my initial proposal seems to capture at least some aspects of the word. I have to admit that I overuse this definition.

As to your point, I don't understand why the statement (with my "definition") is false. It matches exactly the part from above where it says "A being is conscious when [...] the ability to use the if concept [...] applied to a future behavior."

Because you've omitted the word "ability". So, to restate it: "A being is conscious when it can act intentionally."

Oh, I see you use intentionally instead of anatural in "my" definition. Do we agree, that this definition of consciousness is better (shorter and sharper) than the one on top?

Shorter? Certainly. Better? I don't know, it is different. Sharper? Well, what is an intention?

What ever the definition of natural will be, I think there is a deep correlation between acting conscious and acting not natural in common understanding. So in my opinion it is the right way to search for a definition that contains "natural". -- CarstenKreyser

To have the ability to do something is not enough. If a system never uses this ability, it is equal to not having it. The definition says nothing about how often it is used. A not used variable and a not existing variable is good example for DifferenceThatMakesNoDifference. -- CarstenKreyser

How can this be considered in any way definitional without even making use of the term "epiphenomenal"?! -- BenTremblay

It can't. :) Certainly, the idea of consciousness as intentionality is wrong.

This page urgently needs to be refactored if these kinds of naive comments can be made.

See also: general comments on methodology refactored to StandardDefinitions.
Interesting points are: why evolution makes creatures conscious and how often is it used. In order to survive, we have to act mostly as robots, but it seems that consciousness give us the ability to reprogram ourselves - within some margins of course (I'd like to be superman, but ...). For a given individual, the margins and the frequency of that reprogrammation are dependent on a lot of factors (genetic, social). With enough chaotic behaviour and a little bit of luck, some interesting properties emerge, like wiki. ;O)

From (Merriam-Webster):

consciousness, n. 1 a : the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself

I point this out because most of these other definitions appear to be definitions not of consciousness, but of recall or cognition or the ability to be self-referential. I've seen many really smart philosophers fall into this trap as well, and I can't imagine why, except that "I think, therefore I am" is the (incredibly appealing) root of most Western philosophy. But it doesn't pass my experience in meditating: I do not need to think to be aware, I can simply be aware without activity.

But it begs the curious question: why do so many people seem to think consciousness and reason are entangled?

-- JasonFelice

Isn't consciousness a process in itself? In that we find multiple subsystems of, for example, the human body and mind operating together in order to realize the concept of consciousness. As such, consciousness is the sum of all system interaction, i.e., the processes that finally may lead to a conclusion about the awareness of the surrounding or the self. By that, we find that animals are conscious beings. Consciousness, however, does not necessarily require reason or reasoning, or rationality, and we find that even unreasonable man and unrational man have consciousness.

Must correct myself here, as classification of reasonability is actually very subjective. Even unreasonable men do recognize themselves as for being reasonable. -- CarstenKlein Must correct myself once more: consciousness does require reasoning about self-state. -- CarstenKlein

Wouldn't this make the definition of consciousness easier, less ambiguous and free of any political or otherwise intent?

Consciousness is the sum of all processes that lead to recognition of either the self or the external selves. External selves are internalized representations of those external selves, as such consciousness is a mediation of the external to the intermediate representation within oneself. And even the self from which we can say that is internal to oneself, is being mediate as to finally reach a state of self-awareness and by that consciousness of the self. Consciousness is a process in itself. A process that evolves over time, a process that at some time finds more or less stable states, so-called perception states and awareness states, resulting from interim observation states.

Rationale: This would even make stones a conscious system, in that stones reflect outer selves, i.e., energy patterns that flow through them, and they also internalize such external states, i.e., they heat up and also may split up during that process of internalization of the external self. By that, its own perception state and awareness state as part of its consciousness would require it to split up in response to the external influence. And consciousness is all about that, at least in my opinion. Prior to splitting up, the stone was in a conscious awareness state of being solid and cold as the result of the stone formation process. When being influenced as such that it will heat up to a certain temperature, it changes state of its consciousness until it either breaks up in order to increase its surface in order to more easily transport the energy from the inside to the outside. If it heats up even more, it will finally break up into even more pieces until it eventually becomes liquid in response of itself being a conscious system. As such, for consciousness alone as the sum of the processes leading to self-formation and self-reproduction and self-preservation, not necessarily a reasonable or rational system is required for implementing said consciousness. Of course, during the process of splitting up, the old state cannot be re-established. However, the same is true for humans and other animate and inanimate systems.

-- CarstenKlein

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