Answer to Questionaire about the definition of 'Consciousness'

Chris Nunn
7 Feb 2003

Nineteen people kindly responded to a request posted on the Psyche-B list to send in their brief working definitions of the term 'consciousness'.

The first step was to identify the separate concepts in each definition. When it was clear that a responder was referring to a particular concept, he/she was recorded as using it regardless of the form of words in which he/she described it. When it was not clear whether the form of words affected the meaning, different verbal formulations were regarded as describing separate concepts.

The concepts used are listed below; the figure in brackets after each is the number of people using that concept:-
(a) Knowledge of having it; i.e. introspectability/reportability (6)
(b) Something universal interfacing with, or captured by, a physical system (4)
(c) A something that it is like to have (3)
(d) Subjectivity (3)
(e) An emergent property (4)
(f) A simulation of reality (4)
(g) The form of mentality with which we are most familiar (2)
(h) Unity (3)
(i) Possessing qualia (3)
(j) The difference we perceive when we awake from (dreamless) sleep (2)
(k) Comes in a range of grades/intensities (3)
(l) A 'suitcase' word for a range of cognitive functions (1)

The 19 responders thus appeared to use 12 different concepts in their definitions. Clearly, though, there could be a lot of overlap between some of these concepts (i.e. c, f, g, i, j). The remaining 7 concepts, however, seem quite distinct. Therefore the minimum number of different concepts considered relevant by this group was 8. Even when they shared a concept, people often combined them in different ways to arrive at their definitions.

The next step was to look at the number of concepts used by each respondent in their definition. The results are perhaps surprising. One person (5%) used five concepts; six people (32%) used three; four people (21%) used two; eight people (42%) used only one. Perhaps this distribution was partly an artefact of my having requested *brief* working definitions. All the same it is noteworthy that two-thirds of the respondents used only one or two criteria, suggesting that people tend to focus rather narrowly on particular ideas when it comes to their concept of 'consciousness'. The chance that any two people will share a concept seems to be only around 20%.

The actual 'raw data', the responses whose content is summarised above, are listed below. Each response is preceded by a list of the concepts that it was regarded as embodying. The responses were:-

Respondent 1

Categories: 'a something that it is like to have'
'knowledge of having it'
'a simulation of reality'

One sense of 'conscious' that is popular (which doesn't sound natural to me, but maybe I'm in a minority) is something like this: an internal state is conscious when and only when it is introspected or noticed by the subject who has the state. This is the sense which the philosopher William G. Lycan explictly focuses on.

The sense of 'conscious' that is most natural to me is harder to explain. It's maybe best captured by examples: We have conscious states all of the time that we are awake (and perhaps even in sleep). They are states that detect features outside of themselves (usually, but not necessarily, in the environment). But it's more than just detection because I assume (at least until there's reason to believe otherwise) that a robot that can detect environmental features does not have conscious 'detector states'. What the 'extra' is, I don't know - and it's certainly not something that's contained in my understanding of the word or concept 'conscious'; it would be a *theoretical* addition to say anything about the extra thing that distinguishes robot detector-states from conscious detector-states, such as those we enjoy.

By the way, I noticed that Harland Harrison's sense of 'consciousness' makes global workspace theory true-by-definition. It's something that we all have to watch out for - building our favourite theory of consciousness into the phenomenon we're trying to explain.

Also John McCrone said: "The business of science is not to define consciousness but to model 'consciousness'." It may be true that it's not the business of science to come up with *definitions*, but it is the business of science to be as clear as possible about what it's investigating! (Although of course it might turn out that what we're actually investigating is quite different from what we *thought* we were investigating - but we have to have a starting place in order to make that comparison.) So I think you're attempting something necessary and worthwhile. Good luck again!

Respondent 2

Categories: 'the form of mentality with which we are most familiar'
'a something that it is like to have'
'knowledge of having it'

How's this for a definition: Consciousness is that state or attribute of an organism (not necessarily a human) such that the organism knows what it's like to be in that state.

That defines consciousness in terms of that hackneyed phrase, "what it's like", that is, in terms of subjectivity (or subjective experience). But I suggest that we have no alternative. Every definition works by equating the meaning of the definiendum, which is unknown, unclear or disputed, to a concept (the definiens) that is presumed to be familiar. But there are few, if any, things in human experience that are more familiar than the state of being conscious, of having subjective experience, of knowing what it's like to be -- well, conscious. So what more familiar state could we possibly use to base our definition of consciousness on?

Whimsically, perhaps we might even define consciousness as that state with which we are most familiar ... !

Respondent 3

Categories: 'a something that it is like to have'
'knowledge of having it'

Albeit that Psyche-B is not intended for theoretical matters surely a definition must be theoretical. Firstly, I take consciousness to be a vague term and it has something to do with another vague term: knowledge. Since all that which we decide is real falls within knowledge and consciousness, in some undefined sense, then it must fall to the theory of knowledge to define both consciousness and reality. The psychologist Greg Nixon has repeatedly pointed out that the most basic question is the epistemological one and we still find this unanswered.

The conditions for knowledge are that
1. there be somewhat to be known
2. there be an activity to know the somewhat.

The somewhat is noted, in the developed sense, in the act of perception and to this we bring the activity of our own thought and this evokes the laws of the somewhat which are its explanation. So

Reality is the undivided, original unity of percept and law. Consciousness of any somewhat is the original separation of percept and law, which becomes re-united *for us* by our own act.

Now, consciousness too is a somewhat for knowing. But it can only exist as a reality if it is continually self-producing. The somewhat to be known is not there unless the act is in action. The torchlight turns its attention upon its own beam. Otherwise it can only exist in another sense. This yields two results:

1. Consciousness is a self-producing and self-maintaining united reality. It exists as an original duality (unlike all other real things without exception - this constituting it mystery) the percept of itself by itself and the active inspection of its own laws by itself.

2. Thinking, the ground of all consciousness, must remain entirely indefinable. Childish and animal forms of consciousness are deformations of the first definition

Respondent 4

Category: 'subjectivity'

. . .the point of view of the Self.

Respondent 5

Category: 'something universal interfacing with/captured by a physical system'

I would suggest that this notion of 'shape' can be addressed directly if we consider 'consciousness' as a natural consequence of gravitation; specifically, consciousness modelled as a function of matter coupling to spacetime curvature. There's a question from theoretical physics (attributed to Kac) that parallels the physiological idea:

"Can one hear the shape of a drum?"

This is "the problem of characterizing a two-dimensional shape by means of the spectrum of the laplacian defined on that shape" [Giovanni Landi and Carlo Rovelli, Gravity from Dirac Eigenvalues; arXiv:gr-qc/9708041, Feb 1998].

Landi and Rovelli describe the general idea for a Riemannian spin-manifold, as a way "to describe spacetime geometry by giving the eigen-frequencies of the spinors that can live on that spacetime."

I conjectured some time back that the same must be true, in some sense, for a conscious state involving fermions (spin 1/2 particles like electrons), and found (in rather tedious analyses) that the interacting Einstein-Dirac equation can be formed quite consistently as a higher-dimensional analog of Marr's equation for the response of a retinal ganglion receptive field [David Marr, Vision; Freeman, 1982],

del^2(Gauss.) * I(x),

read as, [(Laplacian of Gaussian) [CONVOLVED BY] (Image Intensity function).

Herein we find an interesting field equation that preserves the correspondence, given as

[8(pi)r - (Ric^2 - Ric)]^1/r^2 = del^2(phi),

where r is a radial length from a neural point mass, Ric is the Ricci curvature and phi is the scalar potential in the Newtonian limit.

The thing to emphasize is that this correspondence unifies Marr's equation on the physiological side, with the Dirac-Einstein equation on the spacetime physics side, and this allows for some interesting computational strategies based on a (classical) 4-d topology, S^3 x S^1.

Respondent 6

Category: 'something universal interfacing with/captured by a physical system'

Consciousness is the expression of any quantity of universal intelligence ('God' in popular parlance, but without associated dogma) in a physical vessel capable of interfacing with that universal intelligence.

Respondent 7

categories: 'knowledge of having it'
'an emergent property'

Consciousness is being aware of awareness Externally Consciousness is an emergent property of the relationships between the brain and the external object. Internally, consciousness is the emergent property of various areas and levels of the brain.

The BIG question is what is that knower of awareness in the back of everything watching everything happen?

What is being conscious of our conscousness?

Respondent 8

Categories: 'something universal interfacing with/captured by a physical system'
'the difference we perceive when we wake from sleep'

My *working* definition is:

"consciousness is the state I'm in when I'm not in the states of non- dreaming sleep or coma - ie when I'm not unconscious".

Which of course is absolutely no help at all in an ontological sense but does at least tell me when it's there and when it isn't!

The real problem is that a proper definition of consciousness requires us to know what consciousness is in a physical (or non- physical) sense before we start. My bet is that the definition will end up being something like "consciousness is a condition of the universe which obtains when certain electromagnetic patterns are in existence". But so far, that's just my hypothesis.

What I don't think consciousness is is a function, or a relationship, or a bit of information. I think it's a substance - at least in the sense that em fields are a substance. I think it has physical reality and extension in space. Or at least that's the hypothesis I'm trying to test. But you knew that.

Respondent 9

Category: 'the difference we perceive when we wake from sleep'

Consciousness is the difference we perceive when someone wakes from sleep.

Although banal, I believe it has the asset of being unarguable.

Respondent 10

Categories: 'unity'
'possessing qualia'

The contents of a unified mental state forming a global workspace and containing at least one of a certain set of subjective attributes which includes qualia, a sense of self, a subject-object dichotomy, free will, or a perception of the supernatural.

Global Workspace:
A unified arrangement of dynamic information such that any element can potentially interact with any other, so that, for example, every element is reportable if any element can be reported, etc.

Quale (plural = qualia):
A fundamental quality of perception, such as "loudness" or "redness", which forms the difference in mental content between perceiving a particular percept and thinking abstractly or recalling a memory of the same percept.

Free will:
The belief that a behavior can be executed or not, arbitrarily, even though emotional forces tend to control its execution.

Respondent 11

Category: 'a simulation of reality'

Consciousness is the brain's simulation of reality, sometimes synchronized to current observations and sometimes processing experiences not actually occuring (necessary for solving the temporal credit assignment problem for reinforcement learning).

Respondent 12

Category: 'the form of reality with which we are most familiar'

A person or animal is judged "conscious" or not, according to the nature or absence of certain observable behaviors or responses to stimuli. Consciousness is what you have when you are conscious, i.e. awake.

Respondent 13

Categories: 'knowledge of having it'
'an emergent property'
'a simulation of reality'
'comes in a range of grades/intensities'

Would like to offer an approach to defining Consciousness from a more biologic viewpoint:

Consciousness is an emergent bioevolutionary system-wide informational phenomenon intrinsic to many living organisms. Consciousness is an ongoing process of distributed informational flows, patterns and morphologies. It functions as a major integrative mechanism operating on all organizational levels within the organism and includes evolving self-representational schemata among its processes. It also is involved with integration of relevant sensory information external to the organism. Consciousness is not synonymous with Awareness. However, the experience, awareness and reportability of aspects of Consciousness are possible when suitable perceptual mechanisms (centralized or distributed) and communication (linguistic) capabilities are available. Consciousness evolves as the organism grows and matures.

Respondent 14

Category: 'possessing qualia'

I don't believe you can find anything that people can agree on about consciousness, accept something like "it is something to do with the way humans thing and feel".

Respondent 15

Categories: 'an emergent property'
'comes in a range of grades/intensities'

Consciousness is a general system property that could loosely be called adaptive behaviour and varies in "qualitative depth" according to some hierarchical measure. The human brain is simply the most complex adaptive hierarchical structure we know. But in principle, a slug, an immune system, a genome, a suitably constructed computer, would have a measurable degree of the property that we might grant the scientific label of "consciousness".

Respondent 16

Category: 'a simulation of reality'

Here's mine. It's a minority among the psyche writers but I understand that it's a majority among professional philosophers. The philosophical school is "higher order representationalism".

An entity is conscious when:

- it contains a model of its external environment that is autonomously (endogenously) updated, yet still synchronized with that environment.

- its internal model contains a model of the model itself.

The extent, completeness and inaccuracies of the model(s) have a profound effect on the nature of the consciousness they comprise.

This definition has no need for dualist mumbo-jumbo, but it can easily contain it. That is, it follows the "absorption into science" program of Searle and others.

Respondent 17

Category: 'something universal interfacing with/captured by a physical system'

I believe consciousness is a property of the physical world. Our brains have evolved to harness this property of the world rather than to create it from scratch (like a boat's sail harnesses the wind). I'm very open to the idea that non-neural systems may be conscious. I sometimes entertain the idea that consciousness arises whenever information is processed by any physical system and that, indeed, the 'decisions' that quarks make are conscious. There are some interesting links between information, order, complexity, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and the involvement of an 'observer'. It is within these links that, I believe, lies the theory of consciousness.

I agree with Chomsky's argument that modern science has served to excise the machine rather than the ghost (Newton couldn't describe *how* the apple falls to the ground. Quantum mechanics can't describe the mechanistic relationships between quarks, it just describes how quarks behave).

I am deeply sceptical of arguments of consciousness based around whether or not an animal can recognise itself in the mirror.

Having said all this, I should point out that I'm a neuroscientist not a physicist so maybe I prefer theories of consciousness from the realm of physics because is has more 'wow' factor for me.

Respondent 18

Categories: 'knowledge of having it'
'an emergent property'
'comes in a range of grades/intensities'

Consciousness is a general system property that could loosely be called adaptive behaviour and varies in "qualitative depth" according to some hierarchical measure."

One cannot dispute that definition, but it seems to me the definition fails to explain its explicandum or to apply uniquely to it. Moreover, why bother trying to explain the nominalization, or reification, of a cognitive activity, rather than trying to characterize that activity itself.

As far as we know for sure, only human beings perform the cognitive activity of experiencing objects and events of reality consciously. If we want to understand "consciousness", we first need to understand the cognitive activity of experiencing, then we need need to understand how it comes about that sometimes experiencing occurs consciously. One cannot dispute the familiarity, to most of us, of the activity of conscious experiencing. It seems there one has one's explicandum.

Respondent 19

Categories: 'subjectivity'
'a suitcase word for a range of cognitive functions'
'possessing qualia'

(1) Experiential Awareness (Subjective Experience) The 'what it is like' first person experiential content of a cognitve entity. Sometimes called 'phenomenal consciousness' or 'qualia'. In sensory modality circumstances: 'redness' or 'hotness' or 'coldness'. In non-sensory modality circumstances: the experience that accompanies abstract concepts such as pleasure, sadness or anger.

(2) Behavioural Awareness The third person externally observed behaviour of a cognitive entity as an indicator of awareness, regardless of any experiential awareness.

(3) Internal/Hidden Awareness Those aspects of awareness not creating experiential or behavioural awareness, but nevertheless actively present within the cognitive entity. Accessible by conversion into other forms of awareness or by inspection of the internal workings of the cognitive entity by another cognitive entity using appropriate tools.

(4) Potential Awareness Innactive/unaccessed models or other domains within a cognitive entity that do not fall into any other awareness category.

At any instant in time a cognitive entity is both creating and using all memory classes. In terms of traditional science, at any instant in time 3s have been acquired from 4s, creating 1s and 2s. (The 1st and 3rd person sides of the description must be accounted for)