It is maybe the oldest existential questions of all.
The dictionary defines “consciousness” as “the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings”. Hence, consciousness is the property of a subject who is to a certain extent aware and responsive to its environment.
The question can therefore be rephrased as “Who am I?”, “I” being that subject who is conscious.
Throughout the history of humanity, spiritual teachers, philosophers and most recently scientists have argued at length over a satisfactory explanation of the nature of consciousness. We can summarize 5 different types of answers:
(In chronological order)
1. Panpsychism, from the Greek pan: “all, everything, whole” and psyche: “soul, mind”, is the view that consciousness is a universal and primordial feature of all things. Early forms of panpsychism can be found in almost all primitive animistic beliefs. Generally, primitive people believed that everything, from animals, to trees to all natural phenomena such as mountains, water streams and celestial bodies where inhabited by powerful spirits that could consciously interact with them. At this stage, the mental and the material spheres were seen as combined together in an undifferentiated, cosmic whole.
2. Dualism, is the view that mind and body are made up of separate substances and occupy distinct realms of existence. One one side the physical reality of matter, on the other the spiritual reality of the soul. Compatible with most theological traditions which claimed the immortality of the soul, this view found a comprehensive philosophical explanation in the famous Cartesian dualism.
3. Idealism, is the view that reality is fundamentally mental and immaterial. Idealism asserts the primacy of consciousness as the origin and prerequisite of material phenomena. According to this view consciousness exists before and is the pre-condition of material existence. Again influenced by many religious traditions which conceived the universe as the conscious creation of a supreme divine intelligence, idealism had a reinassance during the 19th century philosophy in northern Europe.
4. Materialism, is the view which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental aspects and consciousness, are results of material interactions. This is the view generally maintained by modern science. Most scientists try to reduce consciousness to measurable data such as neural correlates or integrated information circuits. Consciousness hence is mostly regarded as an illusionary by-product of the basic neural functions of our brain.
5. Emergentism, is the view for which consciousness emerges as a property of matter. A property of a system is said to be emergent if it is a new outcome of some other properties of the system and their interaction, while it is itself different from them. Emergentism is compatible with physicalism, the theory that the universe is composed exclusively of physical entities, but asserts that consciousness can’t be reduced to matter. This view can be summarized as “the soul is more than the sum of its parts”.
What do you think?
Personally, I believe the while each view holds a part of the truth, the last option – emergentism – is the most accurate. It is able to explain consciousness without assuming metaphysical principles which are by definition unscientific, without falling into the trap of reductionism which basically ignores consciousness as a subjective experience.
I am willing to open a constructive discussion here on the Lifemaker forum, and hope that together we may move closer to understanding this fundamental truth about ourselves, which for too long has remained elusive.
In love and light,