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Tell me about
your mother

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Popping into your mind
Consciousness is that annoying time between naps.
—Karin Gillespie[1]

Consciousness refers to the relationship between the mind and physical world. It is a complex system that includes memory, cognition, input from senses, and an awareness of selfhood. It is essentially the cognition of one's self, one's past, and one's potential futures at any given moment. The term "self-conscious" is often used to refer to acute self-awareness which results in feeling of unease in social settings and the fear of possible embarrassment.

We do not know why or even when consciousness evolved - that is, when living beings in the sequence you - your mother - your mother's mother - ... acquired first-person perspective. Most people intuit that on the one end of scale, (born) humans are conscious, and on the other, plants, jellyfish, starfish, or say a human hand is not; it is not known yet what to say on insects or fish fry, to name a few examples. This circumstance is of course a breeding ground for radicals of all sorts (and that's not even counting religious and New Age ideas) - from people who want bugs to have rights to total skeptics of animal consciousness. The former would imply that getting rid of lice is a murder, and the latter would imply that chimpanzees are like eternal sleepwalkers on autopilot and can be slaughetered with a chainsaw without feeling anything. And needless to say, the question of fetal consciousness or unconsciousness generates a shitstorm of its own as well.

Scientific understanding[edit]

Despite consciousness being the central way in which human beings experience the universe, there are still many mysteries surrounding it. David Chalmers, Australian philosopher and professor, believes that while there are many "easy" issues about consciousness that can be addressed (how the brain stores memories, how attention works, how we organize ourselves, etc.), there is a difficulty in describing in a physical system what it is like to experience something such as a sight, texture, or even a feeling.[2] This problem, that we don't fully understand how a physical system gives rise to consciousness, has led to interesting propositions such as "it may be possible that even rocks are conscious."[Who?] According to bacterial geneticist James A. Shapiro[3] and biologist Lynn Margulis[4], it is possible that some behaviors demonstrated by unicellular microorganisms, including bacteria, are indicative of them possessing consciousness, and it has been hypothesized in the scientific literature that a collection of signal-transducing proteins in some unicellular organisms that has come to be colloquially referred to as a nanobrain could play a key functional role, analagously to the nervous systems composed of neuronal cells present in some multicellular organisms.[5][6] The problem of how the physical neurobiology of the brain and various mental mechanisms gives rise to a seemingly unified consciousness is known as the "binding problemWikipedia's W.svg" or "hard problem of consciousness."[7][8]

Science has attempted to discover if animals have consciousness, but without a language, and being able to posit questions "do you see yourself as an agent or merely an inevitable actor?" few scientists are willing to make claims one way or the other. Species more likely than others to have consciousness include the apes, whales/dolphins, some birds, and elephants[9]. Many philosophers, notably Descartes, insisted that humans are different from animals. However this attitude has largely changed in the scientific community, and the question has shifted more to "how much consciousness do different species exhibit". The question "just which beings are sentient?" and views on it still remain to put it mildly controversial, but only a minority (and usually religious people) believe, like Descartes, that consciousness is unique to humans and all other animals like chimps or dogs are basically "natural zombies".

The scientific study of consciousness involves neuroscience, neurolinguistics and psychology.

Philosophical understanding[edit]

Philosophers have looked at consciousness in quite different terms, identifying it less with some biological process that all biologically modern humans possess, but rather with the quest to identify the 'self' in philosophical terms[citation needed]. One argument postulated by philosophers in the 70s, says that consciousness may have been different during the Homeric era from what it is today, since there are no writings of people talking about themselves as "unified internal subjects". In fact, philosophers such as Descartes and Locke were the first to really describe consciousness as we understand the concept today.

Philosophy, unlike science[citation needed], allows for meta-consciousness—meaning "awareness of consciousness" or even "awareness of awareness." The American psychologist Julian Jaynes, in his seminal 1976 work The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,[10] argued that early humans were not conscious, and consciousness evolved as recently as 3,000 years ago. Some critics[citation needed] of the book argued that what evolved was not consciousness itself but that literally mind-bending concept of meta-consciousness.

One complete mystery is when consciousness exists, and how and when it begins or ends. The problem is that consciousness is so far immeasurable, leading to major issues with Occam's razor and unfalsifiability. This leads to beliefs in things such as the soul, P-zombies, brain in a vat, and debates that can't be overstated on the issue of an afterlife or a lack thereof. Beliefs range wildly, from the belief that all matter in the universe is meta-conscious, to metaphysical solipsism. From the belief that consciousness(es) are eternal, lasting infinitely into the past and future, and cannot be created or destroyed, to the belief that a new consciousness is formed every time you wake up, and an old one destroyed every time you fall asleep.[11] Then there is the belief that consciousness doesn't exist at all, so there is nothing to be destroyed.

Consciousness is also the most common objection given to the sci-fi idea of "mind-uploading" (or "hard" Artificial Intelligence): a computer program may simulate your preferences, habits, etc, but if it does not keep your first-person perspective, the argument goes, it is just that, a simulation, not you. At its best, it would be its own conscious being that lacks meta-consciousness, making it unaware that it's conscious.

Even here, some common sense can be found, however. For example, a vast majority of people, regardless of ideological background, would easily agree with something like the following statement: "a man is sentient and a snowman isn't".

See also[edit]


  2. Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness
  3. Shapiro, James (2006). Bacteria are small but not stupid: Cognition, natural genetic engineering, and sociobacteriology. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 
  4. Margulis, Lynn (2001). The conscious cell.. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 
  5. Webre, Daniel (2003). Bacterial chemotaxis. Cell. 
  6. Stock, Jeffry (2013). The biochemistry of memory. Current Biology. 
  7. Hard Problem of Consciousness, Scholarpedia
  8. Standord Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Consciousness
  9. [1]
  10. Jaynes, Julian (2000) [1976]. The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-05707-2. 
  11. Have fun sleeping tonight.