In philosophy, science and in the lifes of all regular thinking people, there has been for ages the problem of consciousness; how, where and why does it exist?

source: Max Pixel 


One thing is certainly true, and it may even be *the only* truth I can ever be sure of: I am conscious, I exist, cogito, ergo sum. No matter what else is true or false, I experience myself and the world around me, so my first person experience as myself in the universe is the ultimate truth upon which all other truths, and lies, are built. Even if the movie The Matrix is true, even if we’re all the proverbial brain in a vat, that takes nothing away from that most basic of truths: I exist.

Just existing doesn’t sound all that inviting though; my chair seems to exist to, but I’d never want to trade places with it as I’m rather attached to being able to consciously experience my existence, something I strongly *suspect* the chair incapable of. It lacks, at least as far as we’re able to determine, that magical quality of being conscious. If one would ask “what would it be *like* to be a chair”, the answer would be like “dead” or “nothing”. It’s not like anything to be a chair.

American philosopher Thomas Nagel published a famous paper in 1974 called What Is it Like to Be a Bat? in which he argues that materialist theories of mind omit the essential component of consciousness, namely that there is something that it is (or feels) like to be a particular, conscious thing. The chair has no conscious phenomenal experience of itself or it’s surroundings, whereas the bat has a mental model of it’s universe. It will differ radically from our own, as the bat navigates the world through sonar instead of vision; evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins once postulated that bats, with their consciousness, could very well be able to perceive colors in a way unimaginable for us. So even if we would never be able to know what it’s like to be a bat, we know it’s like *something* to be one; the bat also consciously experiences it’s universe, and so does the dog, the bird, the snail, the worm…

Image by johnhain – source: Pixabay


Although there’s no universally accepted scientific definition of “consciousness”, it is widely agreed among most modern scientists that when talking about the hard problem of consciousness, it’s all about how and why sentient organisms have subjective first person phenomenal experiences or qualia. For a materialist reductionist the challenge is to explain how consciousness is generated by, or emerges from physical processes in the brain and body. In his paper, Nagel attempts, rather successfully in my opinion, to refute this reductionism:

The paper argues that the subjective nature of consciousness undermines any attempt to explain consciousness via objective, reductionist means. A subjective character of experience cannot be explained by a system of functional or intentional states. Consciousness cannot be explained without the subjective character of experience, and the subjective character of experience cannot be explained by a reductionist being; it is a mental phenomenon that cannot be reduced to materialism. Thus for consciousness to be explained from a reductionist stance, the idea of the subjective character of experience would have to be discarded, which is absurd. Neither can a physicalist view, because in such a world each phenomenal experience had by a conscious being would have to have a physical property attributed to it, which is impossible to prove due to the subjectivity of conscious experience. Nagel argues that each and every subjective experience is connected with a “single point of view,” making it unfeasible to consider any conscious experience as “objective”.

Nagel uses the metaphor of bats to clarify the distinction between subjective and objective concepts. Bats are mammals, so they are assumed to have conscious experience. Nagel used bats for his argument because of their highly evolved and active use of a biological sensory apparatus that is significantly different from that of many other organisms. Bats use echolocation to navigate and perceive objects. This method of perception is similar to the human sense of vision. Both sonar and vision are regarded as perceptional experiences. While it is possible to imagine what it would be like to fly, navigate by sonar, hang upside down and eat insects like a bat, that is not the same as a bat’s perspective. Nagel claims that even if humans were able to metamorphose gradually into bats, their brains would not have been wired as a bat’s from birth; therefore, they would only be able to experience the life and behaviors of a bat, rather than the mindset. – source: Wikipedia


Ultimately consciousness is defined best as the subjective first person phenomenal experience of sentient organisms… Or is it? If you ask Daniel Dennett, another famous philosopher who’s work on memes and cultural evolution I like very much, there is no problem with explaining consciousness, as the subjective experience is an illusion of the mind. That I never really could get behind though. Yes, free will can be a necessary illusion as it is indispensable for us to have agency over our choices, or at least feel that way, in order to form a society, and our model of the world might not look at all like it really is, much like the bat’s model of the world; the mind is a bag full of tricks. But the fact that I consciously experience my existence, and can think about the ways my mind tricks me into experiencing existence one way or another, those are real.

I like David Chalmers‘ approach to the mind-body problem much more. He doesn’t claim to have answers, but he does have a rather bold but logical proposition to solve the problem, which he has dubbed the hard problem of consciousness:

The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of explaining how and why sentient organisms have qualia or phenomenal experiences—how and why it is that some internal states are felt states, such as heat or pain, rather than unfelt states, as in a thermostat or a toaster. The philosopher David Chalmers, who introduced the term “hard problem” of consciousness, contrasts this with the “easy problems” of explaining the ability to discriminate, integrate information, report mental states, focus attention, etc. Easy problems are easy because all that is required for their solution is to specify a mechanism that can perform the function. That is, their proposed solutions, regardless of how complex or poorly understood they may be, can be entirely consistent with the modern materialistic conception of natural phenomena. Chalmers claims that the problem of experience is distinct from this set and that the problem of experience will “persist even when the performance of all the relevant functions is explained” – source: Wikipedia

Chalmers attempts to bridge the gap between Nagel and materialists like Dennett by taking the rather radical step of elevating consciousness to be a fundamental building block of the universe. To make consciousness one of the universe’s fundamental features, much like time and space:

Some philosophers, including David Chalmers in the late 20th century and Alfred North Whitehead earlier in the 1900s, argued that conscious experience is a fundamental constituent of the universe, a form of panpsychism sometimes referred to as panexperientialism. Chalmers argued that a “rich inner life” is not logically reducible to the functional properties of physical processes. He states that consciousness must be described using nonphysical means. This description involves a fundamental ingredient capable of clarifying phenomena that have not been explained using physical means. Use of this fundamental property, Chalmers argues, is necessary to explain certain functions of the world, much like other fundamental features, such as mass and time, and to explain significant principles in nature. – source: Wikipedia


There’s much more to be said about this of course, but I hope everyone takes the time to think about these questions. Meditate on them. Some truths are only to be found in your personal universe; in that sense you really *are* the universe trying to understand itself. And that self is not a static thing, it’s more like a process, a constant flow of subjective experiences that are somehow attached to the self or experienced through the self. And if consciousness *is* a fundamental feature of the universe, are we then all part of the same proto-consciousness? Could we say: “I think, therefore *we are*?”

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  1. CryptosDecrypted

    Another fascinating post. Consciousness and our relationship to it is one of those fundamentally interesting conundrums of existence.
    ‘But the fact that I consciously experience my existence, and can think about the ways my mind tricks me into experiencing existence one way or another, those are real.’ I feel this is of importance. The ultimate answer to the root and substance of our conscious selves may be on the way (through scientific investigation and mathematical modeling etc.) but for now, this seems a functional perspective.

    1. tryx066 Post author

      Our own mind might be the biggest mystery of all, just because it’s the thing we perceive and examine all mysteries with. As such, it has to be counted as one of the fundamental properties of our universe… Seems so evident to me that I’m afraid I might be barking up the wrong tree, if there even is a tree, wrong or right… See?
      Thanks so much again, @cryptosdecrypted, I really appreciate your steady and insightful flow of comments

  2. sandwichbill

    Interesting article, I’ve been contemplating this very thing. As, you’ll know, the brain is in the dark, relying on the senses to model the world around us. What we call reality, in many ways, is a mass hallucination that we all agree upon, excepting the reality of that physics provides us.

    1. tryx066 Post author

      “What we call reality, in many ways, is a mass hallucination that we all agree upon”

      Indeed @sandwichbill 🙂 It’s a shared mass hallucination, which is why science is still the best way to uncover shared truths, in my opinion. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Smitty

    It’s such a very human thing to try to come up with explanations for stuff like ‘consciousness’. Are we more subjectively evolved than a bat because we think about this stuff and they probably don’t? Can you put yourself in a bat’s shoes and really tell me what their state of consciousness is? Maybe bats have a higher evolved consciousness than us because they can catch and eat 1200 mosquitos an hour. And be in a completely glorified, meditative, subjective state while doing it. Maybe, like us human beans, they also have a higher consciousness state of existence based in energy? Without them having an evolved consciousness, and linked together in it, how to explain an entire bat colony taking wing at once, or a flock of birds all turning as one? But one thing is for sure, humans do tend to consider themselves superior to other inhabitants of the animal kingdom. Misplaced hubris perhaps? For such a highly evolved species we sure are making a mess of this little planet.