August 22, 2021

What is consciousness?

Note: This is a first draft to an interesting topic that I love thinking about! If there are any mistakes, please email me at narulakeshav13@gmail.com.

So what is "consciousness"? What exactly is it and why does it exist? I find it truly bizarre that while all human beings possess consciousness, we can barely comprehend what it really is. And the irony in asking what consciousness is requires one to be conscious about not knowing what consciousness (this hurts my brain). Consciousness is not the only thing that hurts my brain—subconsciousness does too, but in this post, I'll limit our conversation to what I speculate consciousness to be and some thoughts related to this fundamental yet fuzzy topic.

Before I dive into my definition and thoughts of consciousness, let's check out the definition that is proposed by some neuroscientists:

Defn. a subjective experience of the mind and the world. It's the way our mind experiences the world around us.

Google returns this as the primary definition:

Defn. the state of being awake and aware of one's surroundings.

Essentially, to sum that up, it's a way we experience the world around us, which requires some sort of awareness. So is awareness, consciousness? I don't know.

It's hard to describe "what" consciousness is, let alone explaining "why" it even exists. But I think you can break down "the way we experience the world" into smaller components that may comprise this general idea of consciousness.

PS: I will say and propose some weird ideas and say "I don't know" to them simply because ... I don't know anything 😅

Components of Consciousness

The two core components of consciousness are emotions and thoughts. But before I talk about them, let's work out our brain muscles and explore this thought exercise:

As the Artificial Intelligence (AI) industry is emerging, people like to use the example that computers and robots are not aware of their surroundings (at least as of 2019), thus they do not possess "consciousness" like we do and therefore, they must not experience the world like us.

Here's an actual example: imagine you are driving down on long empty road, alone, through a forrest at 2:30am with no signs of street lamp posts. I don't know about you, but thinking about that gives me anxiety. The first thought that comes to my head is "what if the tire pops?", "what if I see a ghost?", "what if I get attacked by a psychopathic killer?" (the last one is from Zodiac). While these are some extreme thoughts, they have some validity.

For a computer, there is no sense of fear. They're not afraid of the concept of dying, if they know what even "dying" is. They're not worried about the car stop working. These are a crossbreed of complex hardware and software assembled together to perform an imperative task; they're following an algorithm, which doesn't teach them to feel the fear.

Emotion allows us to attach a feeling towards the task, such as happiness or stressed or in my road trip case, fear. Thoughts, on the other hand, allow us to think of conceptual and hypothetical scenarios that may or may not occur. It's our imaginative and creative medium. "Shit, why am I the only one on this road?" Us, human beings, are really good at this.

Thoughts and emotions are crucial components that build our so called "experience" in this world. Without the thoughts and emotions, we're just flesh that don't feel and experience the world, but merely follow a set of imperative rules to complete a certain task, just like a robot?!

A world without (emotions × thoughts) = consciousness, loses its meaning, thus, we lose the "experience".

Levels of Consciousness

So it must be that computers and robots are not conscious—we are, which is the only thing that makes us different (excluding the hardware part, but who knows?). But how can we say with certainty that robots or computer are not conscious? According to the definition of consciousness, we think that computers do not experience the world as we do, but how do we know how the computers even experiences the world?

We know that every individual experiences the world differently with their unique combination of emotions and thoughts. What if the way computers and robots experience the world is different from the way we do? To us, the combination of emotion and thought comprises consciousness (or at least that what I think). To a computer, what if there is a different set of combination that comprise their consciousness? Therefore, according to their definition of consciousness, human beings are...not conscious. Do you see where I am getting at here?

To simplify, it's like looking out in the universe and assuming that different alien species are going to look, feel, talk, and sound like us.

We are unaware of how the computer experiences the world. I am not saying that the computer experiences the world, but I can't say it doesn't because I don't know. Perhaps there are levels to consciousness and based on which level of consciousness you have, you experience the world in a different way?

In the "An information integration theory of consciousness" paper, the scientists tried to define consciousness using a mathematical model: a higher level of information integration is directly proportional to high consciousness.

Ok, what does that mean? Let's define what Information Integration theory is (I'm going to just call this II). Information Integration theory models how a person integrates information from a number of sources in order to make an overall judgment. Simply put, it's how we make sense of information around us to make decisions. Now, the higher level of II, the higher level of consciousness you possess. But how are those correlated? I don't know, but let's explore together.

Other beings (or objects) in the world may experience a subliminal level of information integration (II) relative to humans, but the levels of consciousness they can potentially experience is still non-zero. For something to experience consciousness, it's necessary it it must experience some amount of II. 

Perhaps an electron, which may experience information integration at some level, say 0.000000000000000001, (I'm making this up) which is a non-zero value, there it must still experience consciousness, but in extreme smaller states. Does it have emotions? No. Does it have thoughts? No, but it can still experience consciousness (a lower level), just not at the level at which we do.

Which level are we on? I don't know. It may be a hasty statement, but could it be that consciousness, at the core, is simply a fundamental truth, aka a law of physics? I need a break.

Let's take a mental break. *Breathes In* *Breathes Out*. So, how's your day going? Good? Well, how do you know that? ;) Ok, time for us to pet the cat, and get back to this mind numbing post.

A processor? A decoder?

So have we yet answered what consciousness is? Is it the combination of our thoughts and emotions? Does everything experience consciousness? Maybe and I don't know. Since we have previously suggested (in this post) that consciousness is composed of our emotions and thoughts, it seems like consciousness, if you figuratively take a step back, could be the way we experience the world and therefore is the bridge that helps us make sense of this world.

For example, when you upload a photo to your computer, how is the picture stored? Technically speaking, it's stored as a binary, with a bunch of 0s and 1s. Unfortunately, if I asked you to show me the photo you posted on Instagram and you sent me the photo in binary format (like the image below), I wouldn't be able to make sense of the image.

Binary is really hard to read.

But if somehow you could convert the binary code to something I can process faster, like an image of a cat, then I can easily see it.


Perhaps like that, our consciousness processes and decodes the outside world and helps us make sense of things through our senses. Our consciousness decodes the world so that we can see it, smell it, touch it, hear it, and taste it. The consciousness knows that we experience a 3-dimensional world with those senses, so everything is broken down and decoded for us to be able to subjectively experience the world like that.

I know I just said that the consciousness knows, but technically speaking, it can't "know" since consciousness is simply a state of being.

So we experience different levels of consciousness, and that consciousness is simply a processor and decoder that helps us understand/make sense of things through its two core components: emotions and thoughts. Therefore, is consciousness is mechanism?

"It's like my Soul!"

This is not a religious or a spiritual post, but I have heard people describe consciousness as the "soul" inside of us. The soul is defined as the spiritual part of a human being or animal that doesn't care about the body or the vessel it's in, but the way we see and perceive the world altogether.

This definition sounds quite like what consciousness is. It's that feeling like you're stuck inside of a body, staring and looking out of the two holes called your eyes and experiencing the world that way. So is consciousness kind of like our soul? I don't know, so I'll let you think.

World without Consciousness

We know the world as we do because of consciousness, but cane we imagine a world without it? A world where human beings have no consciousness? What will the world feel like to them?

Without consciousness, we'll be biological emotionless, thoughtless, and senseless beings. Without it, we cannot have imagination or feelings or thoughts or fear or happiness (that sounds like a quite boring way to live if you ask me). This begs to question, "why we do have consciousness in the first place?" I don't know.

As I previously proposed, maybe consciousness is just a fundamental truth to our world, just like the space-time continuum, gravitational force? Like how atoms are the fundamental building block of life? We cannot explain why gravity exists or why atoms are the building blocks, just like consciousness.

Without consciousness, I suspect that we would not even care about discovering and exploring what gravity is, what it does, and why it exists in the first place. Without consciousness, would we ever question the existence of alien civilization outside of our solar system?

Without consciousness, we lose uniqueness of thoughts, ideas, and most importantly, the notion of curiosity which drives the force of innovation. Without consciousness, the world would be everything and nothing. Consciousness allows us to be. Without it, we wouldn't be. We wouldn't be aware of the mere fact that we are not. Without consciousness, We're both is and isn't at the same time.

Why do we have consciousness?

We have speculated the components of what makes consciousness and how it plays a role in our lives, but why do we even have it in the first place? This is where areas of Neuroscience and Psychology turns into a philosophical question. And usually, philosophy is less about making up answers, but observing human nature and extrapolating the patterns.

When you take a step back to look at the way human beings interact and behave, there's one thing that stands out: how do we explain the experiences we experience. For example, how do we explain the color red or that Tessera blend at Philz Coffee? Is consciousness the way we utilize our senses to make sense of things around us?

This is the end of my first draft. My goal in this was to open this question up and get myself to think about the weirdness that exists within the universe and actually, within us. I'll continue to add more to this or split them up!