It seems like a simple question, “What Is Consciousness?” However, this question has both baffled and fascinated philosophers for thousands of years. Indeed, even today what consciousness is is not settled in the scientific community. In fact, with the advancements of artificial intelligence (AI), this question is becoming a critical question that we are all trying to come to terms with. In this article, I’m going to keep to the fundamentals of what consciousness is and what it is not. This will include a short description of different states and levels of conscientiousness. Also, how it is different from being self-conscious, and how it is different from your conscience.
What Is Consciousness? A Simple Definition.
So, what exactly is consciousness? At its most basic level, consciousness refers to the state of being aware of one’s surroundings, thoughts, and feelings. It is what enables us to experience the world around us and to make sense of our experiences. However, consciousness is not the same thing as intelligence or cognitive ability. Many animals, from dogs to dolphins, display some level of consciousness, but they do not possess the same kind of reasoning skills as humans.
Surprisingly, there are a wide variety of definitions for the word “conscious”. This is because consciousness is not a topic that is settled in the scientific community, the general public, and the emerging AI fields. So as a starting point, here is a definition of consciousness:
“the state of being awake, aware of what is around you, and able to think:”Cambridge Dictionary
A Deeper Dive Into What Is Conscious And What Is Not.
To get a better understanding of what consciousness is and what it is not, below are some explanations of types of consciousness and comparison of related terms such as self-consciousness and conscience.
1. Besides Being Awake And Aware, What Are Other States Consciousness?
Besides being “awake”, your brain can be sleeping, dreaming, hallucinating, hypnotized, meditating, and have transcendent spiritual experiences to name a few. So for the purposes of this article and to keep it simple, I will not focus on these other types of consciousness. Our focus will be on consciousness that is awake and aware.
2. There Are Also Degrees Or Levels Of Consciousness.
Similar to states of consciousness, your brain can have levels of consciousness. Specifically, your brain can be in a coma, vegetative state, minimal conscious, and alert wakefulness. To better explain, minimal consciousness is where you can provide simple responses to stimuli like “lift your right hand”. However in this state you are not fully awake, aware of your surroundings, or able to think. Again, the focus of this article is on an “awake” consciousness.
3. What Is Consciousness Vs Self-Consciousness?
To be self-conscious, you first have to be conscious. Specifically, self-consciousness is how you feel about yourself, how you feel about your body, and your first-person experience (what it is like to be you). Surprisingly, being self-conscious elicits peculiar emotions like shame, pride, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. See my article, Your Weird Self-Conscious Emotions: Shame, Pride, Guilt, Humiliation, And Embarrassment for a more detailed explanation of these self-conscious emotions. Again, this article just focuses on consciousness.
4. What Is Consciousness Vs Your Conscience?
It is easy to confuse these terms, but they are quite different. Conscious is a state of being awake, being aware of your surroundings, and being able to think. On the other hand, when we are referring to a conscience it is the ability to distinguish between right and what is wrong. Also, our conscience is influenced by our biases and culture. Now, your consciousness does work closely with your conscience. Specifically, your conscious “thinking” will access other resources such as memory and your conscience to analyze and make decisions.
For more information on what consciousness is and what it is not, see Berkeley WellBeing Institute’s Consciousness: Definition, Examples, & Theory and VeryWellMind’s Conscience vs. Conscious: What’s the Difference?. Also, there is an interesting article from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on self-conscience. This includes a study, “Which Primates Recognize Themselves in Mirrors?”, that provides excellent empirical evidence that there are other animals besides humans who have some level of self-consciousness. Lastly, for more examples of consciousness, see my article, Examples Of The Conscious Mind: Both In People And Surprisingly In Emerging AI.
“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”Immanuel kant
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