Dr. Charles T. Tart on October 31st, 2015

How do you define consciousness?

An old friend wrote me that she was exploring how people define “consciousness,” and since I was supposed to be an authority on consciousness, how did I define it?  I either answered or ducked the question as follows:

>How do you define consciousness? <

Oh dear!

 

jtp cover consciousness defintion OED

A cover of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, definitions of consciousness from the Oxford English Dictionary…

My first reaction is that I’ve got to try to help my old friend to not hurt herself too much, so you should find a nice soft pillow, fasten it securely to the wall, and as you start banging your head against the wall, be sure to stay where the pillow is so you don’t hurt your head too much…  The finest minds of humanity have been banging their heads against the wall on this one for a long, long time, and my short answer is that you can’t “define” consciousness.  By giving up on that myself, I haven’t needed to keep a pillow fastened to the wall of my study for some time…     :-)

Getting serious — well actually I was quite serious — the first big problem is that all sorts of people talk about consciousness, and awareness, perception, and so forth, as if they were all talking about the same thing, but generally they’re not.  What person A means when she or he talks about consciousness is not necessarily what person B means, etc., but since we like to agree and find support from each other, we’re tempted to assume they mean the same thing, and then things get really confusing!

My impression is that when someone talks about consciousness they’ve settled on one or two aspects of the many aspects of consciousness, and are thinking and talking as if that’s all there is to it.

To illustrate, how do you “define” an automobile?  No, you can’t take the easy way out by pointing out your window at one of those things sitting in the driveway.  I want a logical, unambiguous, and un-confusing definition.

Well, an automobile has tires.  Almost always true, so we’re starting out pretty well, but obviously there’s a lot more to it than that.  Okay, an automobile has seats.  An automobile has a windshield.  An automobile usually uses gasoline or diesel fuel.  An automobile can move, under the direction of a driver, from one place to another.  And, and, and…

Which of the above characteristics is most important?  None, of course.  Yes, an automobile has parts, but it’s the way those parts relate to each other, both statically and dynamically, that is much more representative of what the concept of automobile is about.  Our language makes us tend to habitually think in terms of things, solid, unchanging things, but really an automobile is a process using things.

Can the windshield, by itself, understand what an automobile is?  How about the tires?  How about the gasoline?  How about the process of combustion of the fuel inside the cylinders?  We’re asking if the part can comprehend the whole, when the whole exists only because of the interaction of many parts.  In technical terms, the whole is a systems emergent, emerging from a specific pattern of interaction of sub-systems, but the properties of the whole can’t necessarily be deduced from knowledge of the parts, the sub-systems.

So I regard “defining” as one of the many parts  or subsystems of consciousness.  Consciousness  has other parts, like perceiving, feeling various emotions, planning, remembering, etc.  People who write and talk about consciousness usually, as I mentioned above, are most interested in one aspect of this but then tend to treat it as if it were the whole.  But I don’t see how the part can understand the whole, so while defining can be a very valuable function of this much larger process we call consciousness, I don’t really expect that it can somehow comprehend the whole of consciousness.

But wait, don’t throw your hands up in despair!  While consciousness itself may be too big a process for the part called “defining” to comprehend, we can still communicate usefully about the actions of some of the parts, or the interactions of some of the parts, even if we can’t comprehend, “define” the whole from any particular parts perspective or qualities.  What we can do if we’re reading someone’s writings about consciousness or hearing them talk is get them to define what they mean by “consciousness” in this particular instance.  If we could get people to do that, we could have much clearer communications.  But as long as we’re talking about different things while always using that word “consciousness,” communication is pretty inefficient and often totally misleading.

Okay, is your pillow still fastened to the wall?  If you want to bang your head some more, please use the pillow, but if you’re feeling less puzzled, take the pillow down and sit on it, get clear about what particular aspect of “consciousness” you went to learn more about, and think and observe…

If I come across as too sharp, sorry, that’s not my intention, and I’m really quite optimistic about us getting a lot clearer about some aspects, at least, of consciousness.  In my years of studying altered states of consciousness, listening to many people’s accounts of what had happened to them, one of the smartest things I learned to do was stop assuming I understood that I knew just what they meant when they used common words, and ask them to get more specific about it.

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