What is Consciousness?

What is Consciousness? Is it distinguishable from Conscience? An exploration of intelligence, morality and the metaphysical to show what sets us apart as human beings

What is Consciousness?

Most people know and say they are conscious beings but find it difficult to express what it means. Consciousness is one of the most debated topics in human history. The widely accepted definition of it is the awareness of self, internal and external existence. Consciousness is associated with alertness, and the only thing that most disciplines agree on is that it exists. The issue with consciousness is that most disciplines do not know what criteria to use when measuring and studying it. Is it linked to how animals think (Cognition), feel (Emotions), or perceive the world? And how is it connected to experience? 


Most scientists agree that consciousness is linked to all the above however they are still not sure what it is. So, what is the challenge here? Science has discovered things that had no previous understanding. However, consciousness is a concept that remains a mystery. Most disciplines have a theory on why it exists. Science states it as a by-product of the process of evolution and is essential for survival. Still, there is no explanation for what exactly it is.


We aim to address this challenge and the puzzle it creates in this article. The complexity of what it is to be human encompasses multiple concepts. To develop an understanding, let us start by taking a look at feelings/emotions.


Feelings are common to all animals and are a core part of who they are. The curious thing is that even insects experience emotions. One might think, are insects not driven by instincts? Yes, they indeed are, but one of the definitions of emotion is; an instinctive or intuitive feeling, distinguished from reasoning or knowledge. Instinct is a primary emotion/feeling; it is the tendency of an organism to respond to a stimulus. A study published in frontiers in behavioural neuroscience showed that bees experience positive feelings when they receive an unexpected sucrose reward. 


Feelings create a drive, a need to do something, even in the tiniest of organisms. These drives help all organisms explore and map out the environment, looking for food, shelter, safety, and even procreate. Feelings link to the neurophysiology of brain chemistry and to the selectivity of attention. Consequently, if emotion affects the attention of an animal, it is crucial in learning. Learning is the gaining of knowledge, and feelings are part of the acquisition of knowledge. 


For this reason, when someone experiences a strong emotion, memories and vivid images can bubble up to the surface. It is due to a linkage between feeling and information stored in memory. Animals are also capable of this. A good example is an elephant. 


In the wild, when poachers kill an elephant herd member(s), the other elephants, later on, act in fascinating ways. Mourning after experiencing loss, feeling grief and even going as far as visiting the graveyard where their herd member(s) died. When a jeep with tourists comes close to the herd that lost a member, they act out, often in aggressive ways. The smell and sight of humans trigger feelings of anger accompanied by the memory of the poachers who killed their herd member(s). Anger is a secondary emotion that stems from a primary emotion like fear or sadness that the elephant felt when it was vulnerable and threatened, when its herd member(s) died. Elephants are considered amazing animals that have high brain capacity and are very intelligent.

 Image by <a href=An Elephant Family  luxstorm from Pixabay

Intelligence is considered a distinguishing factor between animals and humans. This difference in intellect is due to the size of the human cerebral cortex: the part of the brain that is associated with higher brain functions like thinking and memory. Humans, according to multiple studies, have the largest cerebral cortex of all mammals. Not only that, humans have a large number of fibres connecting different brain regions giving birth to specialized functions such as complex language. The large cerebral cortex and specialized functions give humans an added advantage when it comes to learning. Humans are therefore considered animals with high intelligence. 


However, humans are not the only animals that have learned a complex language. Apes, whom evolution considers as human beings closest ancestors, can learn a complex language. Good examples are Chantek the male orangutang and Koko the female gorilla, who learned sign language. Sadly, they can also pick up behaviours that can hurt them, like the orangutang that learned how to smoke in an Indonesian zoo.

Image by <a href= An Orangutang ShekuSheriff from Pixabay

There is a difference in intelligence between humans and other animals, but intelligence itself does not link to the constraint of human consciousness. If there is a link, other highly intelligent animals would have attained a civilization by now. It has been millions of years since the process of evolution began. There is a difference in intelligence that sets humans apart, but it is not the answer to what consciousness is. So what is? 


The answer lies in another concept that separates humanity and other animals; conscience. Conscience is a moral sense of what is good or evil in a person. It is distinguished from consciousness which is a state of being aware. Conscience is often associated with the metaphysical (like spiritual experiences that can be in nature but don’t follow all the laws), and consciousness is often associated with the physical element (under the laws of nature).


In our previous article, we identified that one mistake science makes is trying to study metaphysical phenomena with criteria that measure physical phenomena. The consequence of this is that science can split two or more concepts that are the same because they are associated with the physical and metaphysical. Science can also fail to understand a phenomenon because they cannot measure the metaphysical. When the separation of the metaphysical from the physical happens, confusion starts. Is this the case when it comes to consciousness as humans are both metaphysical and physical beings?


Consciousness cannot be fully understood, the reason is as a result of this separation. The mystery of how we are aware of our existence lies in an answer that is as simple as it is complex, conscience and consciousness are one. 


Consciousness is crucial in discovering and experiencing the world, therefore, to be conscious is to have the ability to identify, distinguish or attribute meaning as either good or evil. Provided a being can attribute meaning and purpose to external and internal experience to either a category of good or evil, then it can be aware of its world deeply. That being can observe and make conclusions, can question the self and the world. That being can be aware of its existence in a world where there is good and evil. It can create or use things already in existence for either good or evil, as it can infer the purpose and meaning of things encountered. 


Conscience (Morality) is at the core of human consciousness. Although associated with being awake and alert, the definition is a result of departure from the metaphysical element of consciousness. You cannot be aware of yourself internally and externally if you cannot categorize what you encounter or observe as good or evil. If you categorize, then you can experience because you are aware of what you are experiencing. 


The claim can be confusing at first, but it is the most logical deduction as to why we are aware of our existence. Questions arise from this, and understanding what good and evil mean and how they are linked to purpose and meaning, will help in understanding how we experience. That will be addressed in the next article.