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Why is Consciousness not Fully Understood?

Consciousness is not a tangible object. People cannot see, taste, touch or feel it. Therefore, it is difficult to prove its existence. Or even to point to a certain experience and claim that this is happening because consciousness is taking place. How do people know that a certain event is the product of consciousness and not some other process? How does one collect enough evidence to support an intangible thing?

When attempting to prove the existence of consciousness, one encounters two problems: the easy and the hard one. The easy problem is to “distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computation, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved” (Pinker, 2007.) This can include one’s likes or dislikes, choices a person has made, what to eat, whether to hold a pencil or not. Pondering on all of these actions can fall into the category of the easy problem. This is because people are aware of them and they do not fall into their subconscious. It is easier for people to explain that these elements are the result of consciousness. The hard problem, on the other hand, is “explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation” (Pinker, 2007). It is asking the question why. Why is red, unlike green? What is green? Does one person see colours the same way as the other one? Unlike with the easy problem, when it comes to the heard problem one does not know what to look for and which clues to follow. This is why the hard problem is so difficult to solve. Perhaps, it is even unsolvable at all. Marlow (2013) explains that this might be so because humans do not possess the intellect that is necessary for solving such problem. It is speculated that in order to solve the hard problem it is necessary for people to have a bird’s eye view.

Deepak Chopra (2017) provides many examples that show how difficult it is to support the existence of this phenomenon: correlates between neurons in the brain may not be causations, and just because a brain is complex does not mean its consciousness is more advanced. These are just a few arguments displayed from the many. There are endless reasons to doubt the existence of this phenomenon. Every argument against consciousness seems to be a lot more persuasive than any reason for. It is like this phenomenon was meant to be disproven. That being said, these are not the sole reasons as to why consciousness is not understood. In the past, philosophers were the ones who made the main decisions and knew what was what. But in the 21st century, that power is given to experimenters and this is where the problems start (Chopra, 2017). This is so not only because there are so many hypotheses to test or because experimentation is a conscious choice. It is also because researchers separate into different camps when attempting to support the existence of this phenomenon. All of these camps come up with their own reasons to explain consciousness. However, once they hear the opposite side’s theories to explain consciousness, they find them rather ridiculous. These camps seem to not be able to come to an agreement.

One of such arguments is the one of Daniel Denett. He claims that the whole idea of consciousness is an illusion (Burkeman, 2015). It is a construct that has been forced upon people. There is nothing more grandiose or unique to the brain other than the organ itself. One may argue that this statement is, basically, denying that there are emotions, feelings, experiences. That it is common sense that all of those things exist and humans experience them. Although, according to the argument of consciousness being an illusion, common sense shall also tell us that the world is not round and the sun orbits the Earth (Burkeman, 2015). It is a brain’s job to make it seem like events are connected and to fill in gaps. But to claim that consciousness is something that needs to be studied is an absurd statement. According to Denett, consciousness is nothing more but a brain in action.

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Others claim that consciousness is connected to the physical existence of a human body; after all, if one stabs themselves, their consciousness will fade (Burkeman, 2015). This explanation seems very convincing and it is difficult to argue. Burkeman (2015) states that even with the advancement of neuroscience in the 20th century, it was difficult to come up with a convincing alternative argument. The question of defining consciousness is not much of a problem to ponder on. The bigger question was how. That was the query that many scientists could not find the answer to. Burkeman (2015) explains that when it comes to consciousness “it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved”. One can speculate the how’s and put importance on neurons and processes inside the brain. It is easy to claim that these are the main criteria responsible for consciousness taking action. However, it shall remain only speculation and the question of how is still not answered. There is no proof.

Here is another scenario that causes one to ponder on the existence of consciousness. Imagine getting a brain scan. It can see every little detail; it will be able to tell who you are and what is happening inside your head. Every thought process can be clearly seen. You may say, this proves that I am a conscious human being. Good. But now, imagine that a clone is made of you. The clone undergoes a brain scan. Upon completion, the scan will show exactly the same patterns in its brain, there shall be no difference between your scan and the clone scan whatsoever. It is a clone and, therefore, all the processes are identical. But now is the question. Which one of you is the conscious one? To some, the answer is obvious: the original is. But why would the clone not be? After all, it is identical to the original. Alright, you say, then that means the clone is also conscious. Prove it. Is it conscious simply because it has the same brain? Or because, generally-speaking, the clone can experience life and witness the world around it? Even the most advanced brain scan cannot display consciousness or present any proof of its existence. People can only see the processes inside the head, the structure of the brain and the like. Consciousness still remains intangible to any machine that produces the scans. But if this phenomenon cannot be seen, yet people know of its existence, then what is it made of? Surely, there must be something that makes up the whole consciousness thing. Some atoms or a certain kind of process. Anything at all. Burkeman (2015) explains that if something that is non-physical can provoke a physical reaction, such as jerking away your hand upon touching something hot, then it should exist. Let us assume that this notion is generally agreed upon and consciousness exists. But how far will it be taken?

If humans experience consciousness, what about other animals? For the sake of argument, a dog shall be used as an example. When it is hurt, it may whine and when it is happy, it may bark and wag its tail. These are all signs that it experiences consciousness. After all, it takes in the world around it and responds to stimuli. One may argue that this is happening because a dog has a brain and, therefore, is conscious. However, is this truly the sole reason? There should be a way to support the existence of consciousness and point out to an action and claim that that is a product of this particular phenomenon. However, this is something that still remains impossible to complete. As of 2018, scientists still cannot determine what causes consciousness, what makes it appear and function. Therefore, is a brain really necessary in order to be conscious? Animals with less developed brains seem to be conscious as well. So, perhaps, the brain has very little to do with it. And if this is true, then how far does consciousness go? Perhaps, even inanimate objects could experience this state. After all, it is not exactly known how consciousness works and no significant studies have supported its tangible existence. Logically, there is no reason for people not to assume that consciousness is limited to the living.

This article is a section of an ebook yet to be published by SciVenue.

  1. Gaspar Arachovitis says:

    This article is at best problematic.
    First of all the questions proposed are fallacious (begging the question). In science we don’t try to prove the “existence” of consciousness. Consciousness is not a physical entity that we need to prove or disprove its existence.
    Consciousness, like ex. Natural Selection in evolution, are labels we use on observable Emergent Processes which their emergence is based on independent physical processes. Their manifestation can be evaluated by meshing with those processes. Artificial Selection is one way to interrupt the natural biological process of Selection. Affecting the ARAS module in our brain is the way to observe how our conscious states are affected or ceased.

    The approach of this article is not a scientific one and the goal of it is to preserve the mystery behind our nature.
    It is a dishonest approach which blends philosophy with pseudo philosophy (Chopra) and it insists to promote “why” questions as serious questions (Hard Problem).
    The sole reason why we don’t still understand consciousness is because it is produced by a highly complicated structure, the human mind, on a chemical level with some speculations involving quantum mechanisms too. That does not mean that we don’t have advances in out understanding. The truth is that our Scientific understanding has gone far beyond these pseudo claims/questions.

    All Articles on consciousness should include our latest scientific epistemology. By excluding our current scientific knowledge , that inevitably renders them fallacious pseudo philosophical efforts to promote a specific worldview.

    1. Ahmad Kouta says:

      But the question remains: Is “Consciousness” fully uncovered? The answer is: NO. Therefore, anyone has the right to ask: WHY? And this article stands as an analysis of why we don’t know much about this topic?