(Prague, Czech Republic—March 2003)
There is much confusion surrounding the term “consciousness” as applied to humans. The confusion concerns both the phenomenon to which the term refers and the various ways in which the term is used. For instance, it is common to hear someone use “consciousness” when they mean “awareness.” It also is common to hear someone use “consciousness” when they mean “awareness of one’s consciousness” (this awareness of consciousness is sometimes called self-consciousness). Thus used, “consciousness” has two very different meanings, which leads to confusion. Such confusion is further multiplied in ways I will describe momentarily.
The confusion surrounding the term “consciousness” is largely due to errors of language, errors resulting from historical usage of the term. The errors continue to plague us because of an unfortunate circumstance: there is no agreed upon definition of the term “consciousness.” In some discussions, the term is identified as awareness; in others, as self-awareness; in still others, as the human mind. Sometimes the terms “consciousness” and “self-consciousness” are treated as identical, at other times they are differentiated. Confusion is further amplified by terms like “subconscious,” “unconscious,” “group consciousness,” “cosmic consciousness,” and so on.
Historically, this same sort of confusion once surrounded the term “soul,” which variously meant spirit, psyche, and mind, depending on the user. Even now, you will find persons who treat various configurations of those terms as identical, and some who equate “consciousness” with soul or spirit.
Finally, there are those who simply argue that we cannot define “consciousness” because it is indefinable, because we do not know what it is—though these same parties continue to use the term all the same.
Clearly, the usage of the term “consciousness” occurs in a quagmire of uncertainty and confusion. Any definition becomes one of contextual usage; the definition must be deduced from the specific context of its usage, and may or may not be meaningful in another context.
This circumstance is not only unfortunate, it is unnecessary. There is no reason why a working definition cannot be agreed upon. Granted, it is not as simple as a group of persons passing around an object (a book, say) and agreeing that henceforth this object will be called a book, thus enabling communication about the object now called a book; the book is an object each person in the group can see and touch, while “consciousness” is not such an object. But then, neither is a unicorn (an imagined creature), nor the number we call 1,000,000,000 (a mathematical concept), nor the color red (an approximate wavelength range in the light spectrum), but we have agreed to definitions for those terms despite the obvious difficulties they pose. And we can (and should) do the same with “consciousness”.
Better yet, we should completely discontinue usage of the term “consciousness.” The term is unnecessary. Indeed, one reason for the confusion surrounding the term is it superfluous. In every context it is used, another term exists which better serves the meaning and, as a result, the clarity of communication.
It’s instructive to look at the way a dictionary manages the term. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1979 edition) defines “consciousness” this way:
“consciousness 1 a: the quality or state of being aware esp. of something within oneself b: the state or fact of being conscious of an external object, state, or fact c: CONCERN, AWARENESS (race~) 2: the state of being characterized by sensation, emotion, volition, and thought: MIND 3: the totality of conscious states of an individual 4: the normal state of conscious life 5: the upper level of mental life of which the person is aware as contrasted with unconscious processes”
The three sub-definitions of definition 1 all are identical with “awareness.” Definition 2 is identical with “mind,” and arguably is a gross confusion of the two terms. Definitions 3 and 4 also mean “awareness.” Definition 5 seems, at first glance, more problematic, referring to psychological processes of which we are not aware—until we again understand it simply refers to “unawareness” as the flip side of “awareness.” So except for definition 2, “consciousness” means “awareness,” and in contexts where definition 2 is operating, “mind” works as well as “consciousness.”
So much for the noun “consciousness.” A look in the dictionary at the adjectival form (“conscious”) reveals similar results, with a single difference: one definition given for “conscious” is “self-conscious.” However, the meaning of “awareness” works here, too. The term “self-aware” serves equally well as “self-conscious.”
Of course, there are those who will argue “consciousness” is a useful term if for no other reason than we have a history of using it. To them I say, the term “ether” enjoyed a long history of usage, too, before we discovered there is no such medium in which electromagnetic waves are transmitted. Nowadays, “ether” is better used in a poetic sense, meaning air or open space; it certainly enjoys no objective meaning. Similarly, it is time to put the term “consciousness” aside.
Instead, I suggest we use the term “awareness.” This term is adequate and clear, and agreement to use it would put all on an equal footing in the matter of definition, certainly a prerequisite for any productive discussion.
Another positive consequence of such an agreement would be the recognition of “awareness” as a dynamic state of being, a state of being in constant flux. Too often, “consciousness” is understood as a thing in itself, a kind of object, much in the manner one hears some refer to the mind or the soul as a kind of object. There is a reason for the mind to be understood in this way, and I will go into it later. As for the soul–what it might be, if such a thing exists—I will leave that to others far wiser than me; for my part, I consider it at most a poetic term, much like ether, unless and until someone offers up an agreeable working definition.
If anyone doubts that “awareness” will suffice as a term inclusive of the phenomenon traditionally called “consciousness,” I challenge that person to present a case where it does not. In such cases, the term “mind” will suffice. There is no case where either “awareness” or “mind” will not suffice.
“On Consciousness As a Concept”
(Prague, Czech Republic—August 21, 2007)
Consciousness is a concept. It is a concept in the same way that awareness or intelligence is a concept.
Consciousness exists only as a concept; otherwise, it does not exist.
However, “to be conscious of something” does have meaning, in the same way that one can be “aware of something.” In fact, aware is a suitable descriptor and renders conscious a redundant word; the same applies to awareness in relation to consciousness.
In a special case, conscious could be useful in describing the reflective mental event in which one is aware of one’s self in space-time. But the word is not necessary.