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This Is What I Mean When I Say ‘Consciousness’

The word “consciousness” is used in many ways. The most typical meaning is ‘social awareness.’ When people talk about the 60’s as a great “revolution in consciousness”, they are referring to the social awakening that happened. This meaning does not address the sense I care about…

The sense I care about is the one that is usually used in discussion about philosophy of mind. What is that sense? The sense can only really be inferred via self-reflection. And this is a faculty that varies across individuals.

I will do my best to explain: When we are ‘conscious’ we are usually ‘conscious of something.’ We have something in our mind, a referent we are paying attention to.[1] Now, there are uncountably many possible referents you could be conscious of: You can be conscious of X, Y or Z. So for example you can be conscious of a blue sky above you, imagining swimming in the wet clouds up there. You can also be conscious of an abstract concept like  “square” or “spaceship.”

But what is it that allows you to be conscious of possible referents in your mind? If you were to take two instances of your life in which you were conscious, but in which none of the referents you were conscious of  in these two cases had anything in common, what exactly is being shared between these two cases?

Here the word consciousness becomes useful. Consciousness is that which is shared among all experiences, all instances of ‘being conscious of something.’ It is not, in any way, the referents you are conscious of. It is the medium by which those referents come into existence as experiences. 
Now, I know a lot of people who would object to this word. They say that I can describe everything I just said without actually invoking the word ‘consciousness.’ They would say, “you already gave a description of the sate of affairs when you said that you were conscious of X. You don’t have to say that in addition to that there was this mysterious thing called consciousness that allowed the referent to come into being. There was just that, the act of being conscious of it, which can be thoroughly defined in terms of information processing performed by your brain. Why invoke such an obscure and useless word, then?”

Here is what I have to say about that: Consciousness is the single most important thing that exists.

It may even turn out that it is the only thing that exists.[2]

But in spite of this, knowing what the word refers to may, unfortunately, also require a special kind of consciousness that not everyone has. A lot of people I have met, specially among the mathematically talented folk, fail to grasp (1) the referent of the term “consciousness” and (2) its relevance. Many believe that because bright minds disregard this subject, it must be irrelevant or even just a pseudo-scientific field of study.

Unfortunately, what people don’t know is that there are implicit biases that come with each cognitive style. The cognitive styles that facilitate strong mathematical and scientific abilities also come with specific biases, and these biases typically prevent a lot of bright people from actually making sense of the word “consciousness”. 

In general, it seems that people in the Aspergers spectrum have a hard time understanding the referent of this word. Aspergers and IQ (which can be described as a form of systematizing symbolic intelligence) are positively correlated in some fields, and in the case of philosophy, the “mathy and scientific philosophers of mind” tend to have a prominent weight in the discussions about consciousness in rationalist communities.

The result is that a lot of bright people use philosophers like Dennett as a way to justify their pre-existing lack of interest about consciousness, and manage to construct a worldview that is suspiciously lacking in the area of philosophy of mind. 

How do I explain this? My current hypothesis is that there is one particular sort of qualia that enables you to self-reflect in real time. This qualia is oftentimes dramatically amplified by psychedelic and dissociative drugs, meditation and even things such as falling in love (none of these methods work reliably, though). I call this qualia the “mirror-like quality of consciousness” (a quality most likely involved in the psychological mindedness of people).

This quality is both useful for social reasoning and philosophy of mind. It is also related to “mentalizing.” This is, simulating a process as if it was being directed by an agentive conscious being. If you mentalize too much, and in the wrong places, you may develop highly agentive models of reality: You can project agency onto the universe and conclude that a personal God must be in charge of everything.

But mentalizing is not necessarily a bad quality… it is something that human minds do that usually serves a social purpose. And for it to serve a philosophical purpose, it just has to be tamed properly. As far as I can tell, mentalizing is something that specifically points right back into the very referent of the word “consciousness,” and it does so in a way that is itself non-symbolic and ineffable.

Ask yourself repeatedly “who am I?” If you have a good introspective ability and a solid mentalizing faculty, you will be able to “notice the observer of your own experience.” If you can experience it, then you know what I’m talking about. If you can’t, then you may simply conclude that I am hacking my brain and reaching unsupported conclusions. Who is right?

If you don’t mentalize very much all of this discussion will sound like it is going nowhere. If you mentalize too much, without mindfulness, you may be led to believe in angels and extraterrestrials.

The trick is to mentalize in such a way that you loop back your focus of attention into what is causing you to focus your attention. If you do that right, then you will be able to know what I mean when I say ‘consciousness.’


[1] This is, it turns out, not necessarily the case. You can be conscious without being conscious of something in particular. Unfortunately, this is not a well known fact, and it requires experimenting with substances like ketamine to grasp.

[2] If, for example, Strawsonian physicalism is true, and the volume inside quantum wave functions is ‘made of qualia’, then consciousness would be the underlying make-up of everything in the universe. 

Andrés Gómez Emilsson is the co-founder and former president of the Stanford Transhumanist Association. He has a Masters in Computational Psychology at Stanford. He has worked at AI companies such as Kanjoya and Klout, and his current research topic is emotional classification with computational techniques and pragmatics.

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