What is consciousness? And do we really have it?

Sigmund Freud


The French philosopher Descartes placed introspection, a form of consciousness, as an essential condition of his philosophical system. But what does consciousness actually mean? What are the conditions that need to be fulfilled in order to label someone as being in a conscious state?

Perhaps the most common definition of consciousness is found in one’s sensory awareness of the environment. This means that we are able to use our sense of vision to see, our sense of hearing to hear, and our sense of touch to feel. By doing so, we give the object of our senses selective attention by focussing our consciousness on a particular stimulus that is present to us.

Another form of consciousness is through direct inner awareness, which is the knowledge of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and memories. This includes our conscious imaginations, for example, the act of mentally thinking of a piece of chocolate cake and having the impression of its colour, taste, smell, and texture. This image of a chocolate cake is the product of our consciousness that exist not in reality but as a mental image of our mind.

There are various other conditions that a person should have in order to be recognized as being in a conscious state. Among them include voluntary movement, a continuous stream of mental ‘sense data’, and the deliberate action to gain a desired effect. All these conditions however, face a huge stumbling block.

The philosopher Chuang Tzŭ was notoriously known for his short stories and anecdotes that were seemingly illogical but equally educative. In his infamous ‘butterfly dream’, Chuang Tzŭ commented on the state of not being able to distinguish after his sleep, whether Chuang Tzŭ dreamt about being a butterfly or he is now a butterfly dreaming about Chuang Tzŭ. This state of confusion lies in the fact that we seem conscious in our dreams during our sleep. As for introspection on the other hand, its limitations become apparent as no one but the subject himself is able to discern the findings of an observation based on introspection.

So how do we know that we are really conscious?

Fortunately, science seemed to have found some answers, or so we thought. Correlations between states of consciousness and functions of the brain are possible which means that levels of consciousness, in terms of alertness or responsiveness, are correlated with patterns of electrical activities of the brain (brain waves). These brain waves are recorded by a device called an electroencephalograph and brain wave patterns are associated with mental and physical states of consciousness. When an individual is wide-awake, the pattern of his/her brain waves would normally consist of rapid irregular brain waves of low amplitude (low voltage). Conversely, brain waves are much slower and of greater amplitude often with periodic ‘bursts’, when an individual is asleep.

Although science has given us the much needed evidence and data concerning consciousness, we are still unable to answer many of the questions concerning the many conscious mental processes happening in our brain. How can you know that the fact that you are reading this article is not just a hallucination? The answer is simple. All you need to do is to wait until your hunger pangs prove that you are very much alive, conscious and real. A healthy dose of common sense is required even for professional philosophers.

~ Ee Suen Zheng

2 Responses to “What is consciousness? And do we really have it?”
  1. I do believe that some of the most prominent philosophers will lead themselves in the remediation of their common sense; sometimes leading to solipsism.

  2. jamesesz says:

    Sad but true..Nonetheless, Philosophy is the pinnacle of human creativity and understanding..

    ~ Ee Suen Zheng

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