• Question: What is consciousness?

    Asked by bobblehead to Cathal, Ciara, Michael, Sive on 19 Nov 2013.
    • Photo: Sive Finlay

      Sive Finlay answered on 19 Nov 2013:

      Hi Bobblehead,
      This is a huge question which has been debated by philsophers and scientists for centuries so I’m not going to pretend to be able to answer it properly.
      Wikipedia defines consciousness as a “quality or state of being aware of an external object or something within oneself”. There are some other variations of this idea but the main point is usually the part about being aware and responsive to your surroundings. So that’s fairly straightforward but the problems come when we try and test or measure consciousness.
      There are various psychological neurological ways of testing consciousness in humans so you can give people tasks and ask them to interpret the results or else look at their brain activity while they are doing or thinking certain things. The problem is that the results usually rely on verbal answers from whoever you’re testing; so they tell you how they have interpreted a particular abstract picture or what they were thinking about while their brain was being scanned. There’s no objective way of knowing or proving that people who report their own conscious activities are telling the truth. Similarly, there’s no definitive way of knowing whether the people around us are truly conscious beings or whether they’re just zombies who give all the external signs of being conscious. My friend Adam wrote a great blog about the unconscious zombies http://www.ecoevoblog.com/2012/10/31/zombies-and-the-problem-of-consciousness/
      So consciousness is completely subjective for each individual. There’s no way to walk in another person’s shoes to see the world from their perspective or experience consciousness as they do.
      The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous essay about consciousness called “What is it like to be a bat?”. He argues that we could imagine what it’s like to be a bat; so flying around, eating insects, hanging upside down etc. But all of these imaginings are coloured because they are completely subjective to every individual; we are imagining what it would be like for us as a human to be a bat not what it’s like for a bat to be a bat. Our own subjective conscious state influences all of our thoughts and actions so consciousness is completely unique to each individual and indefinable.
      So, even though you can say that you are conscious yourself, we don’t really know what consciousness is or how to prove that exists in other people. You get into even more problems when you start looking for consciousness in animals. There have been some famous behavioural experiments done with chimpanzees to try and test whether they are self-aware. If you put a dot of paint on a chimpanzee’s forehead and sit them in front of a mirror some individuals will bring their hand up to their forehead and try to wipe the paint away. So to do this they had to recognise their own reflection and realise that the paint was on their own head and not some other animal sitting inside the mirror. These tests seem to show that chimpanzees have an awareness of self but does that mean they’re conscious? How can we define the difference between self-recognition (identifying yourself in a mirror) and being self-aware (a necessary state for consciousness)?
      So we don’t really understand what consciousness is, why it evolved or how to measure it in others.
      Okay I’ve confused myself at this stage!

    • Photo: Michael Nolan

      Michael Nolan answered on 22 Nov 2013:

      Being aware of the world around you and responding in a deliberate way. Thus I would say animaks are conscious.
      The mechanism for consciousness is still uncleat and probably needs new ideas about brain function and at that point thre physical scientist admits he doesnt know!