Consciousness – Not such a Hard Problem (1 of 2)

This is an article I wrote for a Philosophy magazine 5 years ago but it was not published. It was included in my book ‘Western Philosophy Made Easy’, which was based upon the 18-part ‘Overview of Western Philosophy‘.


The studies by neuroscience into the functioning of the brain will tell us nothing about Consciousness. We must differentiate between Consciousness and awareness. Consciousness enables the brain to perceive just as electricity enables the computer to process data. The computer does not generate electricity; the brain does not produce Consciousness.


Ever since the ‘study’ of consciousness began to be an academically acceptable area of research amongst scientists, both they and Western philosophers have been heading deeper and deeper into a conceptual cul-de-sac. At the root of the problem is the tacit assumption that science will (one day) be able to provide an explanation for everything. But, more specifically as regards this particular issue, the big ‘C’ of Consciousness must be differentiated from the little ‘a’ of awareness. The conflation of the two means that the true nature of Consciousness will forever elude them.

Below, I address some of the various misconceptions that are misleading many of the neuroscientists and philosophers in the field of Consciousness Studies. It is accepted that not all of these investigators will hold such ‘extreme’ positions (and a few are much more liberal in their approach).

The most fundamental but erroneous assumption is that Consciousness is somehow a ‘product’ of the brain, and that it ‘resides’ in its physical structure – it has ‘neuronal correlates’. At some point in evolution, so the story goes, the brain acquired sufficient complexity and sophistication for this to occur. Being ‘conscious’ clearly confers an evolutionary advantage upon those animals which ‘possess’ it, so this makes perfect sense.

If it was simply a matter of seeing threats or potential mates, and reacting automatically like a computer program, then perhaps that would be good enough. But of course there is more to it than this. We are also aware of emotions which result from the sensory input. Whilst the parts of the brain responsible for processing the input and output may be monitored and interfered with, what goes on with respect to our ‘experience’ of those things is rather less amenable to investigation. This is the so-called ‘Hard’ problem.

But even this is confusing the issue. Emotions are certainly different in nature from perceptions but so, we might add, are thoughts. The entire problem can be simplified by saying that we are ‘aware’ of all of these things – objects in the world, physical feelings in the body, emotions and thoughts in the mind etc. And we could say (humour me for a while) that Consciousness is what enables us to do all of these things. ‘Consciousness’, operating through the brain, enables us to be ‘aware’.  Consciousness is not generated by the brain; rather it is the makeup of the brain which enables Consciousness to manifest in all those ways with which we are familiar. (Note that I am capitalising ‘Consciousness’ to differentiate ‘my’ definition from that tacitly assumed by the scientist.)

Inanimate objects and simple life-forms do not ‘exhibit’ Consciousness –‘manifest’ is a much more appropriate verb – but the manner in which they fail to manifest Consciousness is analogous to the way that faulty electrical equipment fails to manifest electricity. When a toaster or a radio is broken, electricity no longer has any effect on the mechanisms and the associated functions no longer operate. There is nothing mysterious here; we don’t conclude that the electricity is no longer there or, worse still, that it is no longer being generated. When the brain is irreparably damaged or dead, Consciousness no longer has any effect on the mechanism and the ‘person’ is no longer present. It is not that Consciousness has ‘gone’; the brain did not itself generate this.

Scientists only associate complex life-forms with consciousness and this leads them to such conclusions as that ‘consciousness can be generated by either cortical hemisphere’. But does a severed head with an undamaged cortical hemisphere(s) manifest consciousness? Does a whole, but recently deceased, body (including head and cortex)? This obvious but telling observation seems to be studiously avoided by the worshippers of the neuron.

When we say that we are conscious, what we really mean is that we are aware of something. It is an indication that Consciousness is operating in the perceptual/conceptual regions of the brain. When we are driving a car ‘on autopilot’ and totally unaware of the surroundings, Consciousness is obviously still functioning, since the appropriate motor functions still operate to get us home.

This confusion of awareness and Consciousness leads to the most remarkable conclusions, such as that ‘sub-conscious’ activities such as this (performing actions ‘automatically’, whilst thinking or dreaming about something else entirely) are carried out without Consciousness!  Computers might be thought to carry out ‘unconscious processing’, but brains certainly do not.

Various experiments have been carried out which show that our eyes see things that we claim not to be aware of. It is concluded that the ‘saccade’ system, whereby our eyes are constantly scanning the environment, is carried out without consciousness. Again, one has to observe that something is activating the system; dead people do not move their eyes to monitor their environment. It is acknowledged that certain parts of the brain appear to be responsible for controlling aspects of the body, and that this takes place below the level of awareness; but this further highlights the confusion of terminology. There are so many aspects, from pumping the blood to tying our shoelaces, that it simply would not be possible to involve our so-called conscious mind in all of them! Some we learn and then relegate to auto-pilot; some we haven’t even the slightest idea how to perform, such as regulating our body temperature.  We are aware of very little but Consciousness is involved in everything.

The sensations that the brain is capable of experiencing do indeed depend upon the makeup of the brain and sense organs. We do not have the physical equipment to detect X-rays or radio waves without the assistance of technology but this is a limitation of our bodily equipment and has nothing to do with Consciousness. Examining the brain is always only going to be examining the equipment. Even if you could tell exactly what a person was feeling, perceiving and thinking, by analyzing their MRI scans for example, you would still know nothing about Consciousness.

It is not that man can experience more than dogs or plants because they have more Consciousness (as a result of having more neurons, a greater scope for connectivity etc). It is that our brains can do more with the same Consciousness, just as a computer can ‘do more’ than a light bulb with the same electricity. Because human brains are so much more complex than those of the lower animals, scientists erroneously conclude that Consciousness has evolved, or is ‘emergent’ as the system evolves. The bigger the network, the greater is the number of states – true. But this is only analogous to, say, a more sophisticated amplifier having tuners and frequency analysers, while the basic ones just have a volume control. It is the same electricity passing through both.

So many assumptions have been made in the history of consciousness studies, yet these have usually not been made ‘consciously’! They are rarely even recognised as assumptions, being taken as self-evidently true. Thus, Consciousness is not a property of complex states, it happens to manifest in them. It is not a property of living matter. Vast amounts of effort have been expended over the past few decades trying to find its origin, assuming it to have a biological basis. No one would want to admit that this might not be so – a supreme example of cognitive dissonance if ever there was one!

So convinced are scientists that consciousness is somehow ‘produced by’ the brain that they can categorically state that there is no mysterious force separating organic and inorganic matter and that life is nothing more that physics and chemistry.

Yet they are forced to acknowledge that experience is not a material thing and cannot be explained by physical properties of the brain. This is the ‘hard problem’ of what they call ‘qualia’, the ‘units’ of experience – what it ‘feels like’ to perceive objects in the world. Maybe we can indeed say that qualia are ‘features of matter’ or ‘properties of the world’ but this does not mean that Consciousness is as well. Consciousness is what enables matter (i.e. brains) to have experiences.

Finding out what it is that determines whether X is able to have qualia is not going to tell us anything about Consciousness. The extent to which insects are self-aware, or whether it is possible or even meaningful for computers to be aware, are interesting questions, but futile ones as far as understanding Consciousness is concerned.

The bottom line is always going to be that Consciousness is not amenable to investigation at all. It is ‘I’ who has experiences, and ‘I’ am always the subject. (I only have your word for the fact that you have experiences, too. Your word and even your very existence are simply further elements of my experience.) We are conscious of our body and our minds in the same way that we are conscious of gross objects in the outside world. Our own brain is just as much an object as the apple or the house; I just can’t see it quite so easily. ‘I’ can never investigate this ‘I’ using the objective methods of science because ‘I’, the subject, would always be the one looking. ‘I’ am not measurable; I am the one doing the measuring.

Read Part 2