What Is Consciousness?

Consciousness is a person’s awareness of anything and everything.

At any given moment of a person’s waking life, they are conscious of something. It might be something in their immediate field of vision like a coffee mug, a door knob, a tree, or another human being.

It might be awareness of something going on in their body like a pleasure or a pain. Or it might be consciousness of something going in their mind like a desire for sex, fear of a shark, or a thought about the rom-com they saw at the movies last night.

Smoke rising out of a white robotic human head
What is consciousness?

What Are We Conscious Of?

At any given moment, we are aware of a multitude of different things. Some of these things we identify as parts of ourselves, such as our body and our thoughts or feelings.

And some of those things we identify as somehow separate from us, such as our kitchen equipment, our apartment building, squirrels running in the street, and that stranger driving their car further down the road.

The nature of awareness or consciousness has been a philosophical issue for as long as philosophers have been philosophizing. And as long as non-philosophers have been aware of well, anything.

Human beings are not the only conscious beings – most of us believe that at least some types of animals are conscious. Some people believe machines could have a type of awareness. And there are even people and philosophers who believe that everything is conscious in some respect.

Qualia and Consciousness of “What It’s Like”

One term that has become common in contemporary analytic philosophy is “qualia”. Qualia, a hot-button topic for philosophers of mind like Daniel Dennett of Tufts University, is generally thought of as the feel of our awareness and experiences.

When you ask a question that starts with “what is it like to…” you are referencing what philosophers generally mean by qualia. Some philosophers try to explain the nature of the fact that things have a certain feel to them, while other philosophers deny the existence of qualia altogether.

Objective Science Vs. Everyday Consciousness

Many philosophers spend much of their energy on how awareness relates to what can be called the objective, scientific world. The world described by sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology.

But most people most of the time aren’t focusing their awareness on the particles or planets of physics. Their conscious attention is drawn to the things going on in our everyday life – our relationships with family and friends, doing our jobs, having fun, and satisfying our various physical needs. 

Some people will describe having consciousness of both themself and the world around them. That is accurate, although much of the time we are not specifically making this distinction. We are simply aware of whatever is occupying us at the moment.

Maybe we are focused on hammering a nail to hang up a painting. Or, the delicious baloney sandwich we are currently stuffing in our mouths. Or, daydreaming about that hot guy we saw at the gym. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Awareness and Attention

Attention and awareness are quite closely related. But they are not the same thing.

Attention is focused consciousness. When I am explicitly aware of something and actively engaging with it in my mind, such as me paying close attention to how my fingers are moving as I type these words, I am paying attention to it.

But we can be conscious of lots of things that we are not currently drawing our attention to. For example, I am currently aware that:

  • It is early morning a little before 7 am. 
  • I am in the state of Florida. 
  • There is a dirty coffee cup nearby me sitting on the breakfast bar. 
  • I probably should change my pajamas into something more socially passable before I leave the apartment.  
  • Joe Biden is the current President of the United States. 

I am currently aware of all of these things and states, although I am not explicitly focusing my attention on all or even any of them. You don’t have to focus your attention on something in order to be aware or conscious of it.

Types of Consciousness

There are a variety of different types of consciousness and even degrees of consciousness. On the one hand, we can talk about our average everyday experience of awareness. The kind of awareness we have when we are wide awake and caffeinated, doing our job or having lunch with a friend, or playing frisbee with our doggo.

But on the other hand, when you are fast asleep you are completely unconscious. You have no present moment awareness of anything. Some might argue that experiencing a dream might be a form of consciousness, but I would argue that this is actually an “unconscious experience” if I can say so without completely contradicting myself.

Some people also speak of various altered states of consciousness such as a coma, a drug or alcohol intoxication, or delirium / high delusion. These are various different levels and variations on our normal degrees and states of consciousness and unconsciousness.

Philosophy, Psychology, and Awareness

Some argue that Rene Descartes introduced the concept of the mind-body distinction, but this is ridiculous. As long as people have noticed that they are alive and aware of things, there has been some sort of mind-body distinction.

Religions that stretch back thousands of years speak of the separation between one’s body and one’s soul. This is nothing new and it’s certainly much older than Descartes. Even Socrates and Plato philosophized about the body and soul and what might happen to the latter once the former dies.

When psychology broke off from philosophy proper in the 1800s, conscious awareness became a major focus for that new science.

Different approaches were taken to try and understand both consciousness and unconsciousness or subconsciousness. For example, introspection is when a psychologist or really anyone takes a look at their own internal mental states and reflectively examines them.

When speaking of consciousness or awareness, many philosophers, psychologists, and scientists like to begin with the brain. But conscious human beings are not generally focused on their physical brains and yet are still very aware of the fact that they are conscious and of some of the things they are conscious of.

You don’t need to understand the brain to have at least some sense of what consciousness is and what it’s like to be a conscious being.

What Is Consciousness?

Awareness As Information Processing

Some thinkers consider consciousness as a form of information processing. I think consciousness is much more basic and much more complex than that at the same time.

Much more basic because in our moment-to-moment experience, we aren’t doing a whole lot of very hard information processing that makes our brains hurt. We’re simply just noticing what’s around, who’s around, what we’re working on, what we should be working on, what we want to do next, what we want to do in ten years, etc.

I don’t know if I would describe this kind of easy-breezy activity as “information processing” in any deep sense unless you want to just say that we are noticing the things around us and what’s going on in our heads is considered information processing.

On the other hand, consciousness is also far more complex than information processing. Computers and machines process information all day long, but they are arguably not conscious at all. And if they are, probably not in any way remotely similar to the way human beings or monkeys or even dogs and cats are conscious.

Consciousness As a Behavior

Some people see consciousness as primarily a behavior, but I also think this is wrong. A behavior requires some sort of action. But consciousness does not.

When I notice the dirty coffee cup on the breakfast bar, I am not necessarily taking any action or doing any deep thinking about it. I am simply noticing that it is sitting there. And that maybe at some point I should put it in the sink or wash it – that would be behavior. 

If I start analyzing the distinctive properties of a coffee cup, like its color, texture, shape, size, and how much liquid is in it, you might say that this is behavior. But most people aren’t spending that much time and energy analyzing all the properties of their dirty coffee mug.

If you enjoyed this article, make sure to check out my blog post on The Life and Philosophy of Edmund Husserl.

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