Chris de la Iglesia
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Questions on Consciousness

July 8 2023

Consciousness is one of the greatest extant mysteries to our current understanding of the universe, and it is somewhat of a strangely overlooked question. Every creature that is reading this is (presumably) conscious, and (presumably) has an intuitive understanding of what consciousness is. We know that we are currently conscious, and we presume that when we are deeply asleep, under anesthesia, or otherwise incapacitated that we are not conscious. However, a lot of our assumptions about consciousness are not as strong as they may first appear after looking more closely.

Let us take the assumption of unconsciousness. There are many common situations during which we assume we are unconscious, the most common of which is sleeping. However, how can we truly know that we are unconscious? The basis for this assumption relies mostly on the fact that it appears to us that we go to sleep and then immediately wake up, with no conscious activity inbetween. Unfortunately, this relies on the implicit assumption that consciousness requires memory, which it does not.

When we are asleep, there are times that we are certainly dreaming in an altered state of consciousness, and if we are woken up we can describe and remember those dreams. However, if we are not woken up, we do not remember those dreams, and to us in the morning it is as if we were not conscious at all. A similar situation happens when people enter into altered states of consciousness such as getting severely intoxicated, where a person can be up and moving about, talking and taking action, but have no memory of those actions after the event. Even when under anesthesia, patients can be somewhat active and answer questions, but have no memory of those events afterwards.

What does this mean? These situations demonstrate that a lack of memory does not necessarily indicate a lack of consciousness. We can experience phenomena and be conscious even if we do not remember it afterward. This has serious implications for a lot of our beliefs about consciousness.

Let us take an extreme example and consider the situations where our physical body no longer exists. Most assume that we were not conscious before we were conceived and born (more believe this than consciousness after death). However, what do we base this belief on? We assume it to be true because no person who has been born has any memory from before the event, but as previously shown this does not indicate a lack of consciousness. In fact, every person reading this has no memory of shortly after they are born, even more than a year after the event, but nobody disputes that newborn infants are conscious.

Some might attempt to use physical phenomena as a way to determine if we are conscious. We might assume that consciousness requires certain patterns of molecules to interact in a certain way, and if those molecules are not interacting then consciousness does not happen. For example, if the cells in our brain do not conform to (presumably) normal patterns of activity, then we are not conscious.

The trouble with this sort of belief is that it is not powerful enough to disprove unusual situations. Let us take the example of a person with a severely altered brain state because of a traumatic injury. This person’s brain is active and neurons are firing, but the person themselves is not awake and communicating with the outside world. Unlike “locked-in syndrome”, where a person is definitely conscious but unable to physically move any part of their body, this injured person's brain is only partially active, or perhaps active in a different way, and this activity does not correlate with the brain activity of other people.

Would such a person be conscious? Would we consider them to be in pain? Perhaps they experience some sort of happiness or contentment currently, much more so then a regular person would. How can we tell? How could we decide if we should let the person die or allow them to live? The theory of consciousness that correlates it with the common type we experience every day is not powerful enough to answer these questions, but these questions do have answers. The person themselves knows whether they are conscious, and if we could just find a way to communicate with them they could tell us. This is an area where our current understanding of science is insufficient.

My hope, and the reason I am writing this, is that one day we will have a better way of answering these questions. I hope that we will move away from the assumption that consciousness and neurotypical humanity are one and the same, and we might eventually find a better basis for answering these questions. I have no idea what such a basis might be, but if we believe that science can answer all our questions then the answers must be out there, somewhere.