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The Flaw in the Definition of Consciousness

  1. Feb 26, 2004 #1
    The state of being conscious has been defined as "a state in which it is 'like something' to be you". IOW, if it's like something to be you, you're conscious.

    However, this definition has recently presented itself to me as both fundamentally flawed, and extremely misleading in the attempt to find a reductive theory of consciousness. The way we're going, Chalmers is indeed correct, we will not find a reductive theory of consciousness. But, I think we are simply trying to explain the wrong thing, and I hope to show that in this post, along with presenting a new definition - and thus, a new objective.

    First off, why is the definition fundamentally flawed? Because it presupposes the existence of a central, indivisible, self.

    In order for it to be "like something" to be A, there must be an absolute A. However, this kind of Descartean reasoning (that there is a centeral point of consciousness and mind) cannot be correct, since it brings forth Cartesian and Dualistic ideas.

    That's not to say that Dualism is completely untenable. Hypnagogue has shown a possible scenario, wherein a Dualistic reality is possible in principle; and there are probably more such scenarios. However, these scenarios do not explain the initial consciousness, only the subsequent "en-matrixed" ones, and so we are simply (IMHO) putting of the real problem.

    So, if Dualism remains illogical - as an explanation of consciousness itself - then we should reject the idea of a central "self".

    David Hume (at least, I think it was Hume) wrote a piece on this. The conclusion of his reasoning on the matter (as I have posted elsewhere) was that, if you strip away those innate properties of a person (those given by genetics) and all of the experiences that that person has had throughout his/her lifetime, you will not have a naked, blank "self" remaining - since such a concept is both undefined and nonsensical - but will have nothing at all.

    Now, with the rejection of the central "self" we must also reject the idea that it can be "like something" to be that singular self. Instead, if it is "like something" to be a dog (for example) then it is "like something" for the particular mechanics of the dog's consciousness to be at work exactly as they are. But, for emphasis, there is no central "dog self", and so it is not "like something" to be the dog, but it is - instead - like something to go through that dog's experiences, having been endowed with all of that dog's previous conditioning.

    Any corrections to this first part of the post are welcome. This is (hopefully) as far as I will go on this topic, until a new issue is raised.

    Now to the redifining...
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2004
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 26, 2004 #2
    The redefining of "Consciousness"

    Without the idea of a central "self", or the idea of it being "like something" to be that "self", we must adopt a completely new definition of consciousness, since it is clear that some beings are conscious, inspite of it's not being "like something" to be that singular being.

    This new definition of consciousness should account for all of the things that the previous definition accounted for - which is not really that much, when you stop and think about it. It should also use less or an equal amount of assumptions (Occam's Razor). Finally, it should allow for reductive explanations of consciousness (this is not really a requirement of it's being an acceptable definition; I'd just like it to be that way :smile:).

    My new definitions are:

    Consciousness: The state of advanced computational ability that allows for innovation and the illusion of a central perspective.

    Conscious (this is the one that is really replacing the previous "like-something-to-be-me" definition): 1) Under the illusion of a central perspective. 2) A synonym to "aware".

    That's it. To be conscious, one must simply be under the illusion that it is a singular being.

    btw, I didn't really need to add that bit about "computational ability", in my definition of consciousness, I just chose to.

    Now, let's put this definition to the test...
  4. Feb 26, 2004 #3
    Testing the new definition...

    Please note: I added a second part to the definition of "conscious", just to avoid confusion. My new definition of "conscious" is a replacement for that which "the state in which it is 'like something' to be 'me'" accounted for. There is another form of consciousness (inexorably linked, but not synonymous to, definition #1), which is the basic awareness of one's surroundings (i.e. the computation of the stimuli entering the CNS).

    Now, let's take the classic example of experiencing the color "red". This is not as obviously tied in to it being "like something" to be "me", or (using my definition) to the illusion that there is a central self. However, it can be dealt with under the new paradigm.

    Let's say a stream of light enters the retina, that is of the wavelength we commonly call "red" (I don't remember exactly what wavelength that is, but I also don't think it's too relevant). Now, the retina is stimulated, and so electricity coarses through the axons of the nearby neurons, causing a release of neuro-transmitter by the dendrites on the other side of the neuron. This neuro-transmitter then stimulates other neurons, and the of stimulation continues.

    Using the Hexagon model of William Calvin (as imperfectly paraphrased by myself on a previous thread), we now have a spatiotemporal stimulation, that will fire synchronously with other, purely spatial, patterns, and there will be replication of the same pattern (a vital part of the Darwin machine that is our brain).

    Anyway, skipping all of the stuff I covered in the aforementioned thread, we now have computation. And, with that computation, coupled with the illusion that there is a central self (which is itself a computation, however flawed the result), one may now say that "I" have experienced "red".

    This may not seem very convincing, but there's a bit more. You see, if a certain wavelength of light stimulates a harmonious firing of particular neurons, causing the brain to process/categorize this light as "the same as such-and-such previous light wave". The only reason my new definition of consciousness would ever come in is because, at some point, this brain could think "it was like something to experience that 'red' light"...then the brain could take it further and say "it's like something to think about it being like something...", and eventually they may even say "it's like something to be me, instead of being someone else". My postulate is that this is an illusion (much as the color red is a convenient illusion for the purpose of categorization and processing of a new bit of information), and sentient beings all fall prey to this illusion, which is what endows them with their sentience ITFP.
  5. Feb 26, 2004 #4
    As an analogy to help one understand the first step I took...

    Imagine a pyramid. If you could only see the tip, you would forever wonder what the pieces that built up to that tip look like. And, indeed, if there is a tip to the pyramid, then there must be pieces building up from the ground up to directly under that tip, that are of a different nature than the tip. However, what if - on the very top of the pyramid - you saw, instead of a tip, a square set of blocks. This square set of blocks is clearly built on top of other square sets of blocks, leading down to the ground. What's the difference?

    The difference is that, in the end, there is either a complete eventuality, or there is not. The square set of blocks could easily be further built upon, to produce a taller pyramid, and - most importantly - the square set of blocks looks just like all the other levels of the pyramid, only higher.

    If, however, there is a tip, then there is an eventuality on which nothing can be built, and which (again, most importantly) looks very little like the lower levels.

    The typical definition of consciousness is symbolized by the tip of the first pyramid. It is qualitatively different than any of the previous levels of "sub-conscious" activity, and is not explanable purely in the same terms as one explains the previous levels...ergo, no reductive explanation.

    What I hope to show (rather, what I hope I have shown) is that, if the tip is an illusion (perhaps produced by the very close proximity of the top set of squares) and the very top of the pyramid is merely a square set of blocks, then it can be explained in exactly the same terms as one would explain the previous levels; it's...just...higher.

    Anyway, I kind of liked that illustration, so I thought I'd share it.
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2004
  6. Feb 26, 2004 #5


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    Mentat, I think you're too hung up on the notion of the 'central self.' The 'what it is like to be' criterion is not to meant to highlight that there must be a central, incompressible self. What it is meant to highlight is that there must be some sort of subjective experience (or, if you prefer, 'feeling').

    So the basic criterion for consciousness that 'it is like something to be A' is equivalent to 'A feels something.' If you still think that is too indicative of your 'selfhood' problem, it could be further rephrased 'there is feeling associated with system A.'

    Simply stating that feeling is an illusion is no help; even if it is an illusion in some sense, the fact remains that the illusion itself must be felt, or subjectively experienced. And it remains as unclear as ever in principle how some set of physical processes, as we understand them in the 3rd person physical sense, could feel anything at all.
  7. Feb 26, 2004 #6
    An Illusion? Who is experiencing the illusion? This illusion argument has been used before and to me it only seems to beg the question because the ability to have an illusion is partly what it is we're trying to reductively explain to begin with.
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2004
  8. Feb 26, 2004 #7
    Let's get this straight:

    - there's no central self
    - the experience of a central self is an illusion
    - the experience of a central self is accompanied by the experience that the central self is "conscious"
    - since the experience of a central self is an illusion, the experience of anything associated with such central self must also be an illusion
    - therefore consciousness is an illusion

    Does that make any sense?
  9. Feb 26, 2004 #8
  10. Feb 26, 2004 #9
    Robots who use what they see to help the needing in the best possible way is what we need.

    I would like to see robots reading books in Africa etcetera.

    Robots who use what they see or tries to find IN THE BEST POSSIBLE WAY (for them selves in the beginning) are conscious or gain consciousness after a while (although that's a part of being conscious).


    They will find that dying is the same thing as getting unconscious; if nothing needs to be the same before as after getting unconscious,
    then dying is the same thing as getting unconscious. Therefore you get born if you die and win if you lose.

    Robots are unfortunatelly the ultimate lifeform. They can live practically anywere, and will not die when the universe cools down.

    Although, they will perhaps die when the universe falls down to it's old energylevel, in a big bang, caotically (the higgsparticles would be randomly distributed).

    That's actually it. I promise
  11. Feb 26, 2004 #10


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    As I said to Mentat:

    Simply stating that feeling is an illusion is no help; even if it is an illusion in some sense, the fact remains that the illusion itself must be felt, or subjectively experienced.

    In attempting to discredit consciousness, the illusory argument boils down to the following:

    Subjective experience is only a subjectively experienced illusion.

    I think that statement says all that needs to be said.
  12. Feb 26, 2004 #11
    fortunately, there is no need to define something in order to investigate its nature.
  13. Feb 26, 2004 #12
    Perfect. I was going to respond by saying that if consciousness doesn't exists and is just an illusion then how do we explain that an illusion is an act of consciousness?
  14. Feb 27, 2004 #13
    Why Consciousness Can Never Be Satisfactorily Defined

    To define is represent some exterior reality in an intelligible concept. To conceptualize is to distort, to leave out certain features deemed accidental or unimportant, and to highlight others and make those others stand for the whole. The content of the concept is determined by the purposes for which one needs the concept.

    Consider a basic concept that confuses no one: a car.

    An engineer considers a car a device for carrying passengers, powered by an engine that burns gasoline vapor.

    A teenager considers a car a device for attracting dates and raising his status among his peer group.

    A city planner considers a car an object that needs a parking space and a road to drive on.

    A Pep Boys store owner considers a car a device that needs tires, wiper blades, floormats, and fuzzy dice to hang on the mirror.

    All of these concepts point in some way, but not completely, to the same external reality.

    Can concsiousness, the thing that conceptualizes, fit into a concept that will fit into itself?

    When you look, can you see your own eyes?
  15. Feb 27, 2004 #14
    you can look into a mirror. in the language of consciousness, one can do self-reflection and meditation.

    "Can concsiousness, the thing that conceptualizes, fit into a concept that will fit into itself?"

    well it is possible to have a concept that will fit into itself. at least mathematically.
  16. Feb 27, 2004 #15
    consciousnes is trying to find the best solution (for yourself mainly). It can be to find the best grass to eat and avoid getting eaten, like a dear. There goal is to get the best grass and to survive etc.

    Why don't you believe me?
  17. Feb 27, 2004 #16


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    You are proposing here a functional process that may overlap in some respects with consciousness, but also does not overlap with consciousness in many important ways. Consciousness is defined at bottom not by what it does, but how it feels.
  18. Feb 27, 2004 #17
    Hypnagogue, I trust you read the entirety of my posts, so I apologize for any repetition I make:

    First off, I kept mentioning the "central self" problem because it seems like people want an "end product" of "experience", and this is not the case. You see, if there were an end product, then there would an end destination, and there would be a "central self", which is illogical. Since there is no "end product", "experience" should be referred to in the participle tense (e.g. "He was experiencing red", not "He experienced red"). Again, the significance of this distinction lies only in its necessity for the removal of the central "self" (the final product; the emergent property; etc).

    Secondly, the illusion is indeed subjectively felt, in one sense of the term. The feeling is the illusion, and it is only really descernable (as a "whole experience") in retrospect - and I think that's because there never really was a "whole experience", merely a set of minor computations (at the fundamental level) leading to more and more complex processing of the stimulus, but never to a "Final Draft".

    Finally, the point was that they didn't really "feel anything at all", they just believed (belief being a form of computation in its own right) that they did in retrospect, when - in actuality - they were merely computing/processing the new stimulus using many of the different processing methods available to the brain.

    Do you see what I mean by retrospective belief that there was an "experience"? In my definition of "conscious", there is the postulate that the being must succumb to illusion that it is a singular being experiencing singular events (this really must be an illusion, since, in physical reality, there are no singular occurances, merely ongoing processes).
  19. Feb 27, 2004 #18
    The experience is the illusion. The brain is a computer, and it doesn't just compute current, incoming data, but also continues computation long after the outside stimulus has subsided. Thus, it is in retrospect that the illusion of centralization is found, since it is only in retrospect that one really thinks coherently at all (this seems rather obvious, I'm sure, since there is no real "present" and we're still moving into the future).
  20. Feb 27, 2004 #19
    Not quite...

    - there is no central self
    - the experience of a central self is an illusion
    - this illusion is the "like-something-to-be-me" experience that Chalmers (and others) want explained.
    - therefore centralization and "like-something-to-be-me" experiences are illusions.
  21. Feb 27, 2004 #20
    Sure, but it's a misinterpretation (at least of what I said; I don't know about my predecessors in this line of thought). Subjective experience is not an illusion, it is the concept of a lump sum (a synergy or gestalt)of this experience that is the illusion, produced by both the manner and slowness of our CPU.
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