What Is Consciousness?

And What Isn't It?
Much insight can be gained by separating the phenomenon of consciousness into the various aspects which the word has come to include. I think the clearest discussion I have seen of such a decomposition of consciousness is presented in Antonio Damasio's The Feeling of What Happens.

At the lowest level of consciousness is a bare awareness of the immediate surroundings. And we must also ask what role memory might play in this awareness. Is there an awareness of feelings and emotions? The next question is in what sense the organism itself is included in the "surroundings", ie., What is the nature of the self image? Is there an awareness of other individuals of the same species, of different species? Again, memory plays a significant role. Is there an awareness of the past?, an ability to plan for the future?

At still higher levels of consciousness, language comes into play. We might think at first that some of the earlier-mentioned levels of awareness are also language dependent, because we humans tend to be so dependent on language. The claim is that each of these lower-level forms of awareness has a non language-based component (both for us and other species), but is also undeniably altered by the presence of language. This is particularly true of the nature of the self image -- in social interactions, in the way it becomes possible to describe the self image (silently or aloud).

Chalmers also has a list, a "catalog", of conscious experiences. He includes visual experiences, auditory experiences, tactile experiences, olfactory experiences, taste experiences, experiences of hot and cold, pain, other bodily sensations, mental imagery, conscious thought, emotions and the sense of self. He then concludes that "This catalog ... leaves out as much as it puts in. I have said nothing, for instance, about dreams, arousal and fatigue, intoxication or the novel character of other drug-related experiences." Each of these is described in greater detail with respect to its human embodiment. Chalmers later considers many of these elements with respect to non-human creatures, but mainly from the point of view that there is no way we can know the animal's state of mind. He refuses to speculate on the nature of the animal's experience, even when we can examine in great detail the functioning of the creature's brain.


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