A View on the Nature of Consciousness

In the process of communicating with other bloggers that are interested in the future of humanity and philosophy of mind, some upcoming discussions have been planned on a number of related topics. The first topic is: the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the prospect of artificial intelligence. In preparation for the discussion, I’ve summarised my position on this topic here. I’ve spent some time reading and thinking about the nature of consciousness, so I believe that my position has some firm evidence and logical reasoning supporting it. If requested, I’ll follow up with post(s) and comment(s) providing more detailed descriptions of the steps of reasoning and evidence. As always, I’m open to considering compelling evidence and arguments that refute the points below.

The Nature of Consciousness

1. Consciousness can be defined as its ‘nature’. We seem to define consciousness by trying to describe our experience of it and how others show signs of consciousness or lack of consciousness. If we can successfully explain how consciousness occurs — its nature — we could then use that explanation as a definition. Nevertheless, for now we might use a broad dictionary definition of consciousness, such as “the awareness of internal (mental) and external (sensory) states”.

2. Consciousness is a spectrum. Something may be considered minimally consciousness if its only “aware” of external-sensory states. Higher consciousness includes awareness of internal-mental states, such as conscious thoughts and access to memories. Few animals, even insects, appear to be without “awareness” of memory (particularly spatial memory). As we examine animals of increasing intelligence we typically see a growing sets of perceptual and cognitive abilities — growing complexity in the range of awareness — though varying proficiencies at these abilities.

3. Biological consciousness is the result of physical processes in the brain. Perception and cognition are the result of the activity of localised, though not independent, functional groups of neurons. We can observe a gross relationship between brain structure and cognitive and perceptual abilities by studying structural brain differences animal species of various perceptual and cognitive abilities. With modern technology, and lesion studies, we can observe precise correlations between brain structures, and those cognitive and perceptual processes.

4. The brain is composed of causal structures. The collection of functional groups of neurons in the entire body (peripheral and central nervous system) are interdependent causal systems — at any moment neurons operate according to definable rules, effected by only the past and present states of themselves, their neighbours and surroundings.

5. Causal operation produces representation and meaning. Activity in groups of neurons have the power to abstractly represent information. Neural activity has “meaning” due to being the result of the chain of interactions that typically stretch back to some sensory interaction or memory. The meaning is most clear when neural activity represents external interactions with sensory neurons, e.g., a neuron in the primary visual cortex might encode for an edge of a certain orientation in a particular part of the visual field. There is also evidence for the existence of “grandmother cells”: neurons, typically in the temporal lobe of the neocortex, that activates almost exclusively in response to a very specific concept, such as “Angelina Jolie” (both a picture of the actress and her name).

6. Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon.  Consciousness is (emerges from) the interaction and manipulation of representations, which in biological organisms is performed by the structure of the complete nervous system and developed neural activity. Qualia are representations of primitive sensory interactions and responses. For example, the interaction of light hitting the photosensitive cells in the retina ends up represented as the activation of neurons in the visual cortex. It is potentially possible to have damage to the visual cortex and lose conscious awareness of light (though sometimes still be capable of blindsight). Physiological responses can result from chemicals and neural activity and represent emotions.

7. Consciousness would emerge from any functionally equivalent physical system. Any system that produces the interaction and manipulation of representations will, as a result, produce some form of consciousness. From a functional perspective, a perfect model of neurons, synapses and ambient conditions is not likely to be required to produce representations and interactions. Nevertheless, even if a perfect model of the brain was necessary (down to the atom), the brain and its processes, however complex, function within the physical laws (most likely even classical physics). The principle of universal computation would allow its simulation (given a powerful enough computer) and this simulation would fulfil the criteria above for being conscious.

8. Strong artificial intelligence is possible and would be conscious. Human-like artificial intelligence requires the development of human-equivalent interdependent modules for sensory interaction and perceptual and cognitive processing that manipulate representations. This is theoretically possible in software. The internal representations this artificial intelligence would possess, with processes for interaction and manipulation, would generate qualia and human-like consciousness.

Philosophical Labels

I’ve spent some time reading into various positions within the philosophy of mind, but I’m still not entirely sure where these views fit. I think there are close connections to:

a) Physicalism: I don’t believe there is anything other than that which is describable by physics. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t things that have yet to be adequately described by physics. For example, I’m not aware of an adequate scientific description of the relationship between causation, representation and interpretation — which I think are possibly the most important elements in consciousness. Nevertheless, scientific progress should continue to expand our understanding of the universe.

b) Reductionism and Emergentism: I think things are the sum of their parts (and interactions), but that reducing them to the simplest components is rarely the best way to understand a system. It is, at times, possible to make very accurate, and relatively simple, mathematical models to describe the properties and functionality of complex systems. Finding the right level of description is important in trying to understand the nature of consciousness — finding adequate models of neuronal representations and interactions.

c) Functionalism: These views seem to be consistent with functionalism — consciousness is dependent on the function of the underlying structure of the nervous system. Anything that reproduces the function of a nervous system would also reproduce the emergent property of consciousness. For example, I think the ‘China brain’ would be conscious and experience qualia — it is no more absurd than the neurons in our brain being physically isolated cells that communicate to give rise to the experience of qualia.

Changing Views

I’m open to changing these views in light of sufficiently compelling arguments and evidence. I have incomplete knowledge, and probably some erroneous beliefs; however, I have spent long enough studying artificial intelligence, neuroscience and philosophy to have some confidence in this answer to “What is the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the prospect of artificial intelligence?”.

Please feel free to raise questions or arguments against anything in this post. I’m here to learn, and I will respond to any reasonable comments.

7 responses to “A View on the Nature of Consciousness

  1. Hello. I’d like to advertise my Philosophy blog here;
    I’m a philosophy major student, and I share my thoughts both creatively and rationally on this blog, which focuses of subjects from Epistemology to Freedom. Check it out, and be sure to tell your friends if you like it. Thanks in advance,

    Morgan Dobson

    P.S. I liked your post. Consciousness and general brain/mental activity is a very scientific subject, a subject which still eludes modern scientists, and some people like to correlate the concept of a Soul to that of consciousness. It’s an interesting thing to study.

    • Hi Morgan,

      Thanks for stopping by. Hopefully approaching the study of consciousness from scientific perspective will one day answer the question of what it is and how it occurs. I may start writing some speculations of how scientific answers to these questions might lead to new technologies.

      I’ve had a look at your blog, you write posts on a great range of topics and at an impressive frequency! Keep up the good work!


  2. I recently spent a week blogging on existence, and the question of consciousness came up frequently. So it was nice to read someone else’s thoughts on it. I’m a bit tired, and about to go to sleep, but I hope to get the chance to read your post again and respond more thoroughly because you are doing a great job of presenting your points.

    Julien Haller

    • Hi Julien,

      I’ve started looking over your blog, I like the blend of commentary, philosophy and story writing. Please do let me know your thoughts on the view on consciousness laid out in this post.


      • Hi Toby, just wanted to let you know that you are still on my radar. I’ve been extremely busy lately with work and revising my novel. But I’m very interesting in reading your thoughts on consciousness sometime soon. It’s always refreshing to find I’m not the only one thinking about these things.

        Julien Haller

  3. I know you and I have seemed to be at odds over this but now that I see your position completely laid out I think our areas of disagreement are mainly in the narrow range relating to 7 and 8.

    Of course, much depends upon how we define “functionally equivalent” in 7. Just as Walker and Davies define the origin of life as a phase transition during which information gains control over the matter that instantiates it, I think consciousness is much the same moved to another level. There is a sort of inversion of control where matter becomes less reactive to the external world and more proactive towards it.

    Looking forward to our discussion.

    • Hi James,

      I enjoyed the discussion; I hope you did too.

      Thanks for pointing the direction to which parts of my position are most contentious for you. I think I’ll make another post to look at “functional equivalence” in a bit more detail. I think it’s probably related to David Chalmers’ “organization invariance” that he describes in this paper: http://consc.net/papers/qualia.html

      I guess had better read that paper in better detail myself (and some responses if I can find them) in the near future!


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