In 1637, French philosopher René Descartes coined the Latin phrase, “Cogito, ergo sum.” The English translation, “I think therefore I am,” is widely known because of the plethora of pop culture references. His reasoning behind the phrase was to describe that the ability to doubt his existence was the only undeniable proof needed to confirm that he did, in fact, exist. This level of thought and self-awareness posed by Descartes began the centuries-long mystery of human consciousness.
Although Descartes began paving the path towards solving the mystery, that path has yet to be finished. Even the brightest of minds cannot quite deduce where their consciousness hails from. These minds that discovered the ability to travel into space, cure diseases, and build contraptions that could fry up potatoes using only air are all missing the ability to communicate why it is they can concoct these brilliant ideas in the first place.
But when the question of consciousness comes up in conversation, many of these minds steer clear. Perhaps their egos are too big to address that they can’t fathom what they don’t know, or maybe it’s because any wild ideas that have been theorized in the past have been laughed away or tucked into the far reaches of the fringe science section of their local libraries. For whatever reason, scientists long refused to touch the idea of consciousness while philosophers could not keep their minds apart from it. But what is human consciousness? Where does it come from? And why on earth do we have it at all?
What is Consciousness?
To put it simply, consciousness is nothing more than the sum of all you experience. Every pitifully mundane commute to work, every exhilarating first kiss, the fresh smell of spring, and the dread of death itself are the building blocks of your conscious mind. Where these experiences originate—an idea sometimes referred to as qualia—is the stimulation of the senses. Therefore, it could be considered that what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch are the origins of your consciousness.
This simplicity towards something this complex—so complex that the human race has never quite come to any remarkable conclusion—is the true affront. It leaves you with far more questions than it answers. Without the perceived world around you, would you cease to exist completely?
Many modern philosophers believe that for all intents and purposes, consciousness is a plague on true science and that the very thought of study surrounding the meaningful experience in a meaningless universe is laughable. Consciousness is nothing more than what we make it to be—in fact—some philosophers will argue that it doesn’t exist at all. Of course, while you read this you may feel a slight touch of curiosity. That, in and of itself, is proof that those philosophers are merely active agents of plausible deniability.
What is Subconsciousness?
Buried beneath consciousness is the part of the mind that calls the shots, so to speak. As you use your conscious mind to think, feel, and experience the world around you, your subconscious mind is storing these experiences without your active acknowledgment. It influences who you are as a person, the behaviors you partake in, and the patterns you adhere to. It is the sum of your entirety as a human being.
It’s the power behind everything that you are, and recent research has found that the subconscious mind may just be unfathomably vigorous. The experiment in question dove into the question of whether or not people could be fed new information without their conscious knowledge.
As it turns out, they can. By using a technique known as Continuous Flash Suppression, participants were shown images of bright and colorful squares in one eye and data in the other. The information was suppressed by the overwhelming processing needed to become aware of the brightly flashing squares, and thus, those who learned something new were completely ignorant to it.
The participants were then asked to answer questions in quick succession about math problems they had no recollection of seeing during the experiment. As it turns out, their mind had already perceived and answered the problems in their head without them ever being aware there was a question asked of them at all. This research poses an even bigger question about consciousness. If the subconscious mind controls all that we are, all that we do, and problems that are put ahead of us, why do we need consciousness at all?
Neuroanatomy and The Mind
Neuroanatomy is the study of the nervous system. This includes the brain and spinal cord in the central nervous system and the nerves that extend from the spinal cord to all other parts of the body in the peripheral nervous system. It is the brain and the body’s communication system. It controls the functions that you rely on to live another day such as breathing, moving, seeing, and thinking. In regard to thinking, and as such consciousness, those studying neuroanatomy have a lot to learn.
Since the senses are controlled by the brain, it is easy to assume that consciousness does reside in the grapefruit-sized, squishy mound of matter that provides you with life. For perspective purposes, levels of consciousness such as vision or language processing can both become impaired by different brain injuries or damages.
Brain networks that have a hand in the control of the conscious experience are known collectively as the consciousness system. Several different parts of the brain including the association cortex and arousal systems found in the brainstem all work together like linemen at a factory to control just how conscious you are.
There is still some disconnect, though, even if scientists can postulate where in the brain certain levels of consciousness come from. They can see what aspect of the brain lights up on an MRI scan when a person feels joy, however, they have no idea how the brain decided that feeling was joy in the first place. While this is all explanatory in a physical nature, it still doesn’t explain why the brain perceives and experiences anything at all.
Neurophilosophy, Materialism, and The Physicalist View
Neurophilosophy is the exploration of philosophical theories that relate to neuroscience. It is combining two very things that can be both contradictory and heavily reliant on one another. Without the brave philosopher, the scientist may never postulate at all. But without the scientist, the philosopher’s understanding of the universe would be merely made up dribble screamed from the busy corner of Yonge-Dundas square.
The neurophilosophical study aims to break open the locked box of mystery surrounding the self, mind-body connections, and intentionality. Unfortunately, the aspect of consciousness has become somewhat of a wrench in the wheel of progress.
One facet of neurophilosophical study would look to engage brain processes with the conscious experience to provide an irrefutable answer to where the conscious mind comes from in the physical brain. The Hard Problem, the one that inquires why and how neurological processes such as chemical reactions and neural connections can bring about the experience of consciousness, has yet to be answered through any neurological study.
Those who utilize neuroanatomy with philosophical notions practice under the umbrella of the physicalist view—which is the theory that everything in the universe is physical and thus can be measured through physical means. Using the understanding of both neuroanatomy and the physicalist view, it would be safe to ponder that this theory would then posit that consciousness—if it did exist at all—should be able to be physically measured.
Mind-Body Dualism and the Soul Argument
Mind-body dualism is a central philosophical view that suggests that although the mind and body appear to be one, they are two different entities entirely. This somewhat radical view separates the mind from the body in a way that many scientists would deem preposterous. The view, introduced by Descartes, argues that any separation between the mind and the body wouldn’t at all be devastating and that the two halves of what makes up a human being could very well live on without the other.
Within this realm of thinking are the soul and its connection to consciousness. For many, the idea of a soul is as fathomable as flat earth in the sense that it’s just not based on any accuracy. For others, their belief in the soul is an integral part of who they are and gives them the ability to walk towards death without any uncertainty that they will exist beyond the confines of their physical body. The soul is often tied to consciousness for a lack of another explanation. Religious people also combine the soul with their awareness and self-identity, which is what consciousness is, after all.
Descartes believed that the soul itself was housed in the pineal gland, which is a gland in the center of the brain responsible for the receipt and conveyance of information surrounding light and dark cycles of the environment around you. Other researchers postulate that if the soul does exist at all, it would not be in the pineal gland, but rather the brain stem.
The theory of panpsychism tells an entirely different story of consciousness. It postulates that consciousness is not mutually exclusive with human beings and that all matter in the universe possesses its own level of consciousness. Everything from the sidewalk you walk down on your way to work to the birds that chirp in the trees and the trees themselves has consciousness—according to this theory. The entire universe and every single thing in it possess the awareness that has baffled the minds of human beings for as long as we’ve pondered our own thoughts.
The caveat to the theory is that those who believe it to be true also posit that there are different levels of consciousness. A rock, for example, wouldn’t have the same thinking capacity as a human being. The rock could, however, still have a subjective experience which is what consciousness is.
This theory also has the ability to address the hard problem. For example, if small microscopic pieces of matter get together with many others of its kind, it can create something else entirely such as a rose. That rose can then consciously generate the smell so many people revere. The theory suggests that our consciousness comes up from tiny bits and pieces of consciousness that reside in all the matter that forms us.
The Unanswerable Question
The very thought of consciousness, the one you’re having while reading this, is the very proof of its existence. The mechanisms behind it, though, are still plaguing the minds of all that dare to search for the answer. Regardless of which theory you buy into, or any others that you have floated in your consciousness, it remains one of the biggest mysteries of the universe. When toying with the idea consider this: perhaps the human mind is so powerful that we weren’t ever meant to be able to fully comprehend it.