A Working Definition of Consciousness

Consciousness - an abstraction

by Jayaram V

Question: What is consciousness? Can you please explain it in layman terms without going into religious or philosophical explanations?

Prologue: I am not an expert on consciousness. No one can truly define consciousness until we know its entire structure and function. However, since you asked, I will try to present a broader definition of it as a partly automated and partly self-learning knowledge or information system, considering its states, functions, potencies and abilities. I hope it will make sense to you.

We know and understand what consciousness is because we experience it and are aware of the state of being conscious and aware. However, if anyone (like you) asks what it is or what it means, we will have a lot of trouble explaining it or defining it, taking into account its features, uses and functions. Our language is not equipped to adequately understand it or define it or explain it to others.

The task becomes even more difficult since consciousness has several amorphous and transient states, each with its own distinct features and potentials, some of which are also hidden from our knowledge and awareness and cannot easily be brought to surface with current methods of psychoanalysis or consciously experienced in altered or induced states.

However, despite these problems, we may still arrive at a working definition of consciousness, which may not cover all its aspects, but which may be good enough to make sense. It is what we are going to attempt in this discussion. The definition which I am going to present here covers all types of consciousness, not just human consciousness, including artificial consciousness which will gradually emerge from the current research and technological progress in robotics, artificial intelligence, and in studying the consciousness which is found in humans and some animals.

I have to acknowledge that in defining consciousness I have not particularly referred to any book or writing on the subject. Whatever I have stated here is purely from my current knowledge and understanding. When we try to define consciousness, I think we have to consider three criteria, what it is, what it can do and how it can be distinguished from other types of knowledge and information systems.

The popular notion is that consciousness means awareness. It may be too simplistic a definition since it ignores the other aspects, abilities and functions of consciousness. Some people also equate sentience with consciousness. Sentience means the ability to experience feelings and sensations. Again, I believe it is an advanced function of consciousness but not the same as consciousness.

What it is

Consciousness is part intelligence, part awareness, and part information, built around the notion of self in relation to the world or the objective reality or the otherness or the not-self, with which it interacts almost continuously. It is a knowledge system with an inborn ability, awareness and intelligence to be cognizant of the facts, information, perceptions, sensations, skills, etc., which the body gathers and stores in the brain as memories and uses for various purposes. Those ends or purposes may be preexisting, self-willed, self-learned, self-realized or externally imposed from outside sources and conditions. Of them, survival or self-preservation seems to be the most important purpose.

At the most basic level, consciousness is a self-guiding, self-aware, self-protecting, self-sustaining, self-improving, self-preserving, self-conscious and self-evolving system of knowledge and information, which is partly preprogrammed or automated and partly self-learning and self-evolving according to the environment in which it exists, according to its needs and perceptions and according to the information it receives or collects from various sources.

States and types of consciousness

Consciousness has three fundamental states, the conscious, the semi-conscious or the subconscious and the unconscious states. They are also known as wakeful, dream and deep-sleep states. Each of them is important for the integrity, wellbeing and functionality of consciousness. The conscious state is fluid, dynamic and unstable and passes through many transient states of being, having, doing, wanting, desiring, feeling, sensing, experiencing, discerning, remembering, creating, revealing, concealing, leading, misleading, reacting, interacting, and so on.

In the other states, consciousness may remain fully or partially inactive, restful, dormant, subconscious or unconscious where self-awareness and self-control are weak or withdrawn. Each of them serves a different function in human beings and contributes to the synergy and totality of consciousness.

Some people equate consciousness with self-awareness. However, consciousness cannot be self-awareness only. Self-awareness may be a function of consciousness or represent a part of it but not all of it. For example, we cannot say that those who suffer from amnesia or temporary loss of memory or sanity or self-identity are not conscious at all.

Similarly, when a person is unconscious or deeply asleep, it does not mean that he has no consciousness. It only means that self-awareness is at rest, while consciousness is partly active and partly inactive or restful. Some animals lack self-awareness. However, they act as if they have self-awareness and defend themselves against threats or act in their self-interest.

It is because Nature builds in them pre-programmed and instinctual self-defensive mechanisms which help them mechanically respond to external stimuli. Maybe our self-awareness is also an inbuilt mechanism only, except that it is highly evolved, more perfected and fully functional.

According to another classification consciousness is also divided into natural, artificial and synthetic types. The first one is found in humans and several advanced animal species such as primates, dolphins, etc. Artificial intelligence is created in computer systems and mechanical and robotic devices to automate several functions or processes or routines. Synthetic consciousness is that which is partly natural and partly artificial.

Functional and structural aspects

Consciousness must possess the following processes, conditions, functions or aspects to achieve desirable ends or work as an integrated and synergetic system in a self-learning, automated and evolving mode.

  1. For consciousness to exist there must be a mechanism, within the consciousness or apart from it, to collect, analyze, and store the information which is present in it, in a manner which can be processed and retrieved when needed.
  2. The knowledge which forms the basis and acts as the driving force of consciousness may be internal or external and temporary or permanent.
  3. The ability as well as intelligence to use various types of knowledge may arise from within itself or from an external source.
  4. There must be an intelligent mechanism to sift through that information to identify it, evaluate it, systematize it and retrieve it as and when needed.
  5. There must be a mechanism to use that information intelligently, imaginatively and creatively for specific purposes such as problem solving or simulation studies, estimation, comprehension, comparison or guess work.
  6. The mechanism, which makes use of the information or knowledge which is present in it may be self-aware or unaware, but must be capable of using it as and when needed.
  7. However, where it is self-aware and self-driven, it must be aware of itself, of other intelligent systems, of its surroundings, of time and space, of reality and illusion, of truth and falsehood, of the changes within itself and its surroundings, of threats and opportunities, of its limitations, abilities and potentials, and of its place and worth or value in the environment in which it operates, however perfect or imperfect or successful or unsuccessful it’s methods and processes may be to accomplish these goals or functions.
  8. It must always be in a learning and evolving mode so that it can continuously improve itself, adapt itself and preserve itself.
  9. It must be subject to an internal chain of command starting with itself at the top and an external chain of command for control and checks.
  10. Theoretically at least, consciousness must be transferable, either fully or partially, from one entity to another or from one system to another. At present, it is transferred through communication only.

Thus, we can see that although we all possess consciousness and use it and depend upon it for various purposes it is extremely difficult to present a clear and complete picture of its essential nature, purpose and functions.

It is not necessary that consciousness exists only in living beings. Lower organisms, plants and even inanimate objects or the universe itself may possess some of form consciousness, which is presently beyond our reach. Theories supporting it are found in various religious and philosophical systems. Since you asked me not to interpret consciousness from a religious or spiritual stand point, I am not going into it. I have written another article on the subject and will publish it soon.

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