What is Consciousness?
An Overview of Various Definitions.
By: Mark Bancroft, MA
consciousness can be most readily traced
back to the writings of William James (1842-1910). What
consciousness is and how it originates has received a multitude of
possible explanations throughout the last century
and beyond. In the article Metanalysis of definitions of consciousness
writer I. Baruss shares that there are at
least 29 varying definitions of consciousness [Wallace & Fisher,
1991]. A definitive definition does not exist; therefore, a survey
of various definitions may prove to be the ideal method for
understanding what consciousness is and how it originates.
William James defined consciousness as the "function of knowing". He considered consciousness a tool
which, by its nature, is selective, fluid,
and personal- a tool founded upon logic which serves to create an inner
coherent reality. James also believed consciousness to be a
continuous process. He considered sleep a "time-gap" during which
consciousness subsides, but remains in tact; for, upon awakening people
are the same person they were before sleep. James' theory of
consciousness denotes consciousness as being most closely related to
thought, and awareness of oneself in the world during waking moments.
More recent definitions of consciousness supports the writings of William James. The
joint or mutual knowledge
definition considers consciousness to be an
expression closely related to the ability to share thoughts with
others. Through learnt interaction a person develops the ability
to be aware of her/himself. Associated with this definition is the
radical behaviorists' view which claims that without the ability to
express one's inner experience with other people (sharing of
mutual/joint knowledge) self-awareness would not exist. Thus, the
expression of conscious awareness is a learnt phenomenon dependent upon
social interaction and conditioning.
Contrary to the above definition is one in which consciousness is seen as the ability for internal knowing. Rather than being considered a social construct consciousness
arises from within an individual. A combination of the mutual/joint knowledge definition and that of internal knowing is the definition that consciousness is a state of awareness.
definition considers consciousness to be a
state in which knowledge of one's internal domain, as well as the
outside world coexist. External knowledge is derived from the
senses allowing a person to be aware of
her/his inner and outer worlds.
has also been defined as: "the totality of the impressions, thoughts,
and feelings which make up a person's conscious being." This
general definition postulates that
consciousness is the sum of all which occurs within the mind. The American Heritage Dictionary offers
an equally vague definition of consciousness, "The state or condition
of being conscious"; conscious being defined
as: "Having an awareness of one's environment and one's own existence,
sensations, and thoughts."
to the dynamic nature of consciousness
the most recent definitions consider
consciousness to exist at many levels- defining consciousness as the processing of information at various levels of awareness.
Rather than excluding all phenomenon
outside the realm of rational thought, this
more inclusive definition allows for the existence of altered states,
paranormal occurrences, as well as multiple levels/ degrees of
consciousness. An expanded view of
consciousness may be the only way to really
begin to understand what consciousness is and the forms that it
by its nature, aims at simplifying objects,
concepts, and experiences into their most
fundamental and essential elements. In the above definitions
consciousness is most often equated with the ability to know one's thoughts- to experience an
I within who experiences a world without. To
define consciousness in simplistic phrases results in vague, general
descriptions which offer marginal value in understanding what
consciousness is. At
this time a universal definition of
consciousness does not exist. Apparently consciousness is too
dynamic to be reduced into a six-word phrase such as all that occurs in the mind. Therefore,
understanding of the multiplicity's
surrounding consciousness may need to be arrived at by an investigation
of the different theories associated with consciousness.
definitive explanations of consciousness are
offered through a wide variety of theories and models. From the
discipline of neurology, in particular the work of Daniel Dennett, we
are offered the theory that
consciousness in itself is nothing special-
it arises from the ordered complexity of neurons firing throughout the
brain. The brain theory
confines consciousness to physical matter
exiting within the boundaries of the physical body, in particular, the
head. This and other similar theories seek to resolve the
mysterious question of what consciousness is by isolating it as a
phenomenon generated by an organic brain. This reductionistic
approach is a clear reflection of the Cartesian worldview.
"Pinning consciousness to some biological structure has long been a
favorite pastime for scientists and philosophers alike. For
example, over four centuries ago, French philosopher René Descartes
concluded that the peniel gland, a small organ located at the base of
the brain, was the seat of consciousness."
the hard science of the twentieth century, has developed a bitter-close
relationship with consciousness. Through the advancements made in
subatomic physics (quantum
physics) scientists have partaken of
experiments which seem to insist upon the inclusion of consciousness in
order to be explained. The Copenhagen Interpretation
(CI) is the standard interpretation of the
quantum world. It offers a rare explanation for the otherwise
incredulous experimental outcomes of the famous two-slit experiment and
the EPR experiment. The theory maintains that reality exists in
the form of probability waves. Physical objects only "appear" due
to the collapse of their probability waves by a
conscious observer. Thus,
according to the majority of quantum physicists, consciousness can, and
does, affect matter existing beyond the boundaries of the physical
theories describing what consciousness is have existed for more than a
century. Though not formulated upon the scientific method,
the following theories may offer important
material for consideration in understanding
consciousness. Theosophy, an esoteric school of thought, views
consciousness as a multi-dimensional Oneness that cannot be consciously
known. The Secret Doctrine
(absolute consciousness) can have no relation to the bounded and the
conditioned. In the occult teachings, the Unknown and the Unknowable
mover, or the Self-Existing, is the
absolute divine Essence. And thus
being Absolute Consciousness, and Absolute
Motion- to the limited senses of those
who describe this indescribable- it is unconsciousness and
immoveableness…Consciousness implies limitations and qualifications;
something to be conscious of, and someone to be conscious of it. But
Absolute Consciousness contains the cognizer, the thing cognized and the
cognition, all three in itself and all three
one [Blavatsky, 1888].
The above model offers three potentially
critical clues that may be need to be considered for a more
comprehensive understanding of consciousness. 1.) Consciousness
may consist of multiple, perhaps infinite
"levels". An accurate description of
one level may not constitute a description of the totality. 2.)
Our ordinary means of perception may not be capable of offering an
absolute understanding of
consciousness. Rational/ logical
thought may currently be incapable of offering a complete
understanding. 3.) Consciousness has a paradoxical nature.
It is an expression of many levels, yet it is all
The 1946 book, Thinking and Destiny,
by H.W. Percival was written while the
author was in an altered state of consciousness. While in an ASC
the author perceived himself to be conscious upon another level of
consciousness sometimes referred to as the Buddhic Plane. It was
upon this expanded level of consciousness that the book was
dictated. While perceiving what consciousness was Percival
Consciousness is the
ultimate, the final Reality. Consciousness is that by the presence of
which all things are conscious. Mystery of all mysteries, it is beyond
comprehension. Without it nothing can
be conscious; no one could think; no
being, no entity, no force, no unit, could perform any function. Yet
Consciousness itself performs no function: it does not act in any way;
it is a presence, everywhere.
Although there are countless degrees in
being conscious, there are no degrees
of Consciousness. Consciousness has no properties, no qualities,
no attributes; it does no possess; it cannot be possessed. Consciousness
never began; it cannot cease to be. Consciousness IS .
Percival's explanation of consciousness, as well as the explanation found in the Secret Doctrine
consider consciousness as being greater
than, yet including, the individual. To be conscious is a
derivative of something far greater- this something greater is called
The diverging views between Daniel
Dennett (consciousness being a neurological phenomenon contained within
the brain) and those of religion reflect our collective understanding of
consciousness in the West.
Currently that understanding may be more
accurately depicted as a fragmented set of opposing theories and
meanderings most of which claim to offer a correct interpretation, yet
none of which resolve the obvious
contradictions surrounding the question
"What is consciousness?"
Blavatsky, H.P. (1888). The Secret
Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy. Volume I. Cosmogenesis. London: Theosophical University Press.
Guiley, R.E. (1991). Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical &
Paranormal Experience. New York: Harper Collins.
McGreal, Ian P. (Ed.). (1992). Great Thinkers of the Western World. New York: Harper Collins.
Percival, H.W. (1946).
Thinking and Destiny. Dallas, TX: The Word Foundation, Inc.
Wallace, B. & Fisher, L.E. (1991). Consciousness and Behavior. (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.