Problems in Defining Consciousness.
By: Mark Bancroft, MA
1. Inclusion/ Exclusion: The fundamental problem in defining consciousness can be attributed to what to include
, or in most cases what to exclude,
in one's definition. Objective methods developed and relied upon
throughout the scientific era are and have been used to try and define
consciousness which lies deep
within the subjective domain.
Controversy over particular definitions and theories typically relate to
what should be included in one's analysis of the topic. This is
usually done through the practice of
exclusion; the work of Occam's razor which
seeks to reduce all hypothesis' and theories to their most fundamental
(basic) parts. Some desire to include the firing neurons and
exclude all else from the domain of
consciousness. Others seek to exclude
nothing at the inclusion of everything- rocks are consciousness.
Paradigms & Drawing the Line:
During the last two decades the limitations of the scientific paradigm
have begun to surface. Psychology, ecology, physics, and medicine
are facing unique; yet, similar
challenges which in some cases threaten
their continued existence. The reductionist approach would prefer
to draw the line of consciousness
at the realm of conscious thought.
Consciousness becomes the exclusive domain of those who can prove they
are conscious by their ability to speak and think rationally, in
English, to their inquisitor. Everything else is deemed non-conscious,
and less important. Living systems theory challenges logical
assumptions as the above with a "new" set of logical constructs.
Living systems theory tells us that there are no lines to be drawn;
everything is interconnected- all lines are arbitrary. Therefore,
it is logically incorrect to assume consciousness requires a definitive
line before it can be defined.
3. The Challenge of Language:
The challenges presented by our current
language impede our ability to develop a coherent theory of
consciousness. Language plays a critical function in sharing our
ideas with others; as well as our own capacity to think in certain
ways. Currently, language has primarily an "either/or"
orientation. This causes the inner and outer worlds to be
exclusively perceived in an "either/or" orientation. Explaining
revolutionary concepts and ideas to ourselves and others has to be done
through the use of inadequate language. In writing this is evident
in the placing parentheses around a common word. This implies the
author wishes to express an altogether different meaning; it is hoped
that the reader will know what the author means. Metaphors are
also used to describe the indescribable. It is important to
understand that revolutionary concepts and ideas must be expressed and
shared through inadequate words.
is ever invented out of nothing. To invent new distinctions, we must
already speak a language. New distinctions are always invented
as new distinctions of an old language.
They modify, extend, or complement the distinctions of the old language.
So, to invent new distinctions, you need competence in a language
already spoken by people [
What We're Doing and the Time at Which We're Doing It].
4. Bound to Attributes: The influence of objective favoritism has led to the strong tendency to define consciousness by its
observable (objective) attributes. Rather than asking "what is consciousness?" and developing an explanation; the standard approach is asking "what does
consciousness do?" and using that to
explain what it is. Consciousness then becomes that which can be
studied, quantified, and tested in objective language. Therefore,
consciousness is defined according to its observable attributes: it is
learned; alterable; dependent upon the brain; requires social
intercourse; bound by language; equated with rational
Survey the Existing Theories & Models: Rather than attempting to draw a definitive line of consciousness
at this time it would be more beneficial to
openly survey the variety of explanations which already exist.
Much has been written throughout history on consciousness. Quantum
physics, mythology, esoteric teachings, religion, biology, philosophy,
mysticism, and poetry all hold valuable clues which may help explain the
nature of consciousness. This approach may offer the means to
develop a more convincing and comprehensive definition of
2. Framework of Expansionism: Attempting
to strip consciousness of its inherent subjective nature has proven
Instead of reducing phenomena to their
elemental properties a move towards expansionism would yield more
significant results. This does not mean to seek absolute inclusion
in favor of reductionism. This
would be the same fallacy which currently
impedes our progress- just in the opposite form. A framework is
necessary to offer structure for the material being subjected to
study. The choice between
surrounding the study of consciousness with a
frame of reductionism versus the larger frame of expansionism must be
Spectrum of consciousness: One
promising direction in the study of consciousness which has emerged is
the theory that consciousness consists of multiple levels. A more
accurate description views
consciousness as a spectrum. Viewing
consciousness as a spectrum allows for discrete "levels" but does not
arrange these "levels" into a hierarchical model. The
multiple-levels theory is vertically oriented
which invariably implies some modes of
consciousness are more important than others. However, the "more
important" modes are dependent upon their lessor counterparts for
existence. The ability for conscious
thought is recognized as being consciousness
in and of itself. It is easily forgotten that an environment
which is self-organizing, energy conserving, driven by equilibrium, and
evolutionary is essential for the
self-aware, thought-driven human
horizontal orientation, such as describing consciousness as a spectrum,
tendency of ethnocentrism of one's own
level. The spectrum model allows for two apparently divergent
views to coexist. Rather than deciding if The Copenhagen Interpretation
or Madam Blavatsky hold the correct
interpretation of consciousness, we are presented with a viable solution
which is based upon sound reason and logic. Ken Wilber writes:
investigator would be correct when speaking about his own level, and
thus all other investigators- plugged in at different levels- would
be completely wrong. The controversy
would not be cleared up by having all investigators agree with each
other, but rather by realizing that all were talking about one spectrum
seen from different levels…
of course, they would both be right, because each was working with a
different band of the spectrum, and when they realized that, the
argument would cease, and the phenomenon…would be understood
through a synthesis of all the
information gained on each level [Wilber, p.17, 1977].
A more precise interpretation of consciousness would be to say that the conscious experience displays definite attributes, and that the conscious experience
is an expression of something less clearly defined which may be called consciousness. The conscious experience
being of course one band situated along a
conceivably infinite spectrum- which we may call consciousness.
"What We're Doing and the Time at Which We're Doing It," article from Kathy James.
Wilber, K. (1977). The Spectrum of Consciousness. Wheaton, Ill: Theosophical Publishing House.