When you look at your arms and legs, clearly they are yours, or at least part of what makes up “you”. But you are more than just a body. You have thoughts flowing through your mind that belong exclusively to the subjective “you”.
So who exactly are you? Are you the whole package? I am going to suggest that you are not.
Suppose tomorrow you fell into a coma, and remained unconscious for decades until finally passing away. From your perspective, what value would you attribute to the decades you spent laying in a bed, unconscious and unaware of your own existence?
From your perspective, there would be no difference between whether you died tomorrow or decades from now.
To your family and loved ones, that your body is technically alive gives them hope – the prospect that you might regain consciousness. But even to them, it’s as if you’ve lost the essence of being “you” unless you reawaken.
Technically, for several decades, you would be alive. That is your body laying there. Those are your internal organs being kept alive.
But everything that you value about being you is found in your conscious awareness. This is why there’s such a striking difference between losing an arm and losing a head.
What is more important to you? Your physical being, or your notions of consciousnesses?
Forget about the idea that you need both of them. Your comatose body can survive for decades without your consciousness. And your body is constantly reproducing itself at the cellular level without interfering with your consciousness.
The value of “you” is the idea of your subjective awareness, which is entirely tied to your consciousnesses.
Streams of Consciousness
Though that may seem to sum it up nicely, there’s a problem. Leading neuroscientists and philosophers have been slowly converging on the idea that consciousnesses is not all its cracked up to be.
What you perceive to be a steady steam of experiences is merely a number of layered inputs that give the impression of a fluid version of reality. There have been an abundance of experiments that demonstrate this convincingly (see “change blindness”).
Now that might not be so bad. When you go to a movie, the fact that you are seeing a massive series of still images perceived as fluid motion is not problematic.
What is perhaps unsettling is that the more we dig, the more we are led to the notion that what we think of as being consciousness is mostly an illusion. That doesn’t mean we don’t have awareness, we just don’t have the level of awareness we think we do.
Most people have this notion that we take in reality and its stored inside somewhere. Why, after all, can we close our eyes and envision our surroundings. This is what famed philosopher Dan Dennett refereed to as the “Cartesian Theater” three decades ago. He refuted the notion that there is a single place in our brain somewhere that it all comes together, and neuroscience has spent the last three decades validating this position.
So what is consciousnesses? Who are “you”? Are you really just a very complex layer of perceptions melded together to give you the illusions of self?
The Hard Problem
The tricky thing about consciousness is that we don’t fully know how to explain it. David Chalmers introduced the term “The Hard Problem of Consciousness” in the 1990s that seemed to put a definitive wall between the things about the brain we can explain easily (relating psychological phenomena to specific parts of the brain) and those that are much more difficult (what consciousness actually is…”quala”).
Roger Penrose, a leading philosopher of science, perhaps explained the issue best with the following:
"There's nothing in our physical theory of what the universe is like which says anything about why some things should be conscious and other things not."
Thus it would seem we really don’t know anything of substance about consciousness. Though that isn’t wholly true. For starters, there is a good case that there is no such distinction between the easy and hard problems, they’re all merely layers of one big problem.
A good metaphor for this is the weather. Until the last century, the complexity of the weather reached well beyond any human understanding. But with investigation, meteorology made huge strides over the past century. Though this knowledge did not come easily, there was never any need to conclude there was a “hard problem of weather”. So why do we do it with the mind?
The answer may simply be fear. If we discover that consciousnesses is nothing more than an emergent property of a physical brain, we risk losing the indispensable quality of what it is to be human. Many people reject the idea on the notion that its completely undesirable, which has nothing to do with whether its accurate.
Room for Optimism
When you fall asleep, there is a big difference between having a dream and a lucid dream. The latter is magnitudes more interesting. If someone told you that your lucid dream was still merely just a dream, they’d clearly be missing the point.
From our experience of awareness, consciousness isn’t just the opposite of unconsciousness, it feels like something. In fact, its everything. It shouldn’t matter if consciousness is nothing more than a complex physical process, its still beautiful.
So why does it even matter what we discover about consciousness? There’s much to be fascinated about, but none of it will change what it feels like to be you.
And besides, if our consciousness proves to be nothing more than a feedback mechanism where billions of neurons are firing away to give the illusion of observing reality, we still are left with one glaring question: