What is Consciousness?

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Throughout the ages, philosophy and science has grappled with the concept of consciousness. This intangible yet fundamental aspect of every single human life has defied all attempts at being comprehended, understood and scientifically defined. For something that is at the core of our very being, how can this be the case? Through biology and chemistry we understand how many parts of the human body function and what purposes they serve. The brain however still leaves many questions unanswered: while giving us the power to pose these questions, currently it still does not give us the opportunity to answer them. The biggest question of all is the nature of consciousness. Naturally, we deduce that the our consciousness or soul resides within the brain since this is the final inexplicable aspect and most mysterious part of the human body.

With the relatively recent surge in power of artificial computing systems and interest in creating an artificially intelligent machine, it is now excruciatingly apparent that we lack even the fundamental definitions for what consciousness actually is. How can we create an artificial consciousness if we don’t even understand natural consciousness?

Simple definitions

In simple terms, consciousness is what makes us aware of ourselves and others, allows us to be subjective, allows to feel and experience and what gives us apparent control over our selves. By this definition, it is quite right to think of other animals as conscious as they appear to have at least some of these traits. But being so intangible, it is not easy to measure things such as subjectivity in animals and other entities.

Following on from the previous thought, is it also possible to imagine a machine which also possesses some form of consciousness? As far as science can explain so far, we are merely machines, albeit biological machines. While we understand a huge amount about the working of the brain, we cannot yet explain fully how the brain creates our consciousness, so is there an inherent design which allows for our consciousness which cannot be duplicated with machinery? Unfortunately nobody yet has the answer to these questions, meaning that all discussion on this subject remains in the philosophical realm without any scientific proof.

While we lack the scientific proof needed to define consciousness, there is certainly no harm in philosophical debate. These debates are the foundations upon which hypotheses are created, and the scientific method cannot proceed without hypotheses.

Determinism in the universe

An interesting question can be asked about the universe: is the universe deterministic or non-deterministic? Is everything that happens – the universe’s state at a certain point in time – determined purely by an initial state (a random seed) or do the inhabitants of the universe have control over its future state? At the heart of this question is the concept of free will.

Free will

I appear to have free will. I am currently typing this article and as an example I can type the letter Q randomly in the middle of this sentence. I have free will because I could have chosen to type the letter K instead. I could even have chosen to write a different article, or no article at all! I even have enough free will to go back and edit the previous Q to an S. I did not in this case, but I could have chosen to edit this entire paragraph so that what you are reading makes sense, even after 50 edits.

But is this actual free will? I can observe the choices I make and assume that indeed yes it is. But what happens if time was reset? If suddenly the universe reset to the time where I was about to start the previous paragraph again, would I make those same choices? I would have no idea that the universe had reset; indeed perhaps it has reset a number of times already. Perhaps in a previous iteration I typed completely different letters or even wrote a different set of paragraphs about free will. Perhaps I even made a cup of tea instead.

It is clear to see that based on the above argument, it is impossible for me to know if I have free will or not. In fact, it is impossible for any observer within this universe to know. It would take an outside observer to be able to determine if we truly have free will. Imagine an omnipotent god who plays with time and resets the universe at a whim. If this god observes us making different decisions each time then it can deduce that we have free will. Otherwise it can determine that we do not and that our universe is deterministic. Perhaps however the universe in which this god exists is also observed from above and that the actions of this god are purely deterministic. Therefore even if we make different decisions and this god perceives that we have free will, this second-order god perceives that this control of our universe by the first-order god is deterministic, rendering his perception of our own free will null and void.

This of course is a purely hypothetical situation, but it begins to reveal that free will is not something that can be proven. So how could a system of free will actually exist?

True randomness

Imagine a computer simulation of a universe, a small one will suffice. This simulation would naturally have an initial set of parameters and those would then be extrapolated over time as the simulation runs. Without any other external factors, this simulation would produce a determinable state after a certain amount of time has passed. What’s more, the exact same universe could be re-created by running the same simulation with exactly the same parameters (the random seed). If however at each point in time of the simulation an external random variable was introduced, the outcome of the simulation would not be determinable (unless the external random variable could be predicted). It should be clear to see that no true randomness can exist in this simulated universe unless it is injected externally. Any randomness that is generated by the simulation can be determined exactly by an external observer.

So does our universe follow those rules? It is natural to think of our universe as deterministic; at the atomic level, every particle follows a known set of physical laws. Even though we don’t understand those laws fully it is still natural to think of the universe as a machine that follows a set of basic rules. In this case, if we could define the initial parameters at the beginning of the universe exactly and start it again, I would still be sitting here writing this very sentence at this point in time; nothing would have changed.

Furthermore, if the universe is deterministic then there is no true randomness. Things may appear random, as would events in our simulated universe to an inhabitant of the simulation, but to us as observers they would appear as part of a pattern controlled by us. So how could true randomness be a part of our own universe? From our logic so far, it would appear that this randomness must be injected into our universe somehow from an external source. If this was the case then if our universe was reset with exactly the same starting parameters and allowed to run to this exact point, I might be writing a different sentence or might not even exist. Only if the same set of external random values were fed to our universe would the universe turn out to be identical to its previous iteration.

So how does this link to consciousness? We tend to think of consciousness as something that allows us to make decisions based on external stimuli, something that allows us to make subjective choices. But does a deterministic universe preclude the existence of consciousness? Not at all; a living being needs only to be conscious of its surroundings via its senses in order to provide input to the decision-making machine, the brain. If the universe is deterministic then we are complex machines following a predictable set of rules. This conclusion might lead us to believe that consciousness is a product of our own machinery.

The alternative definition, where the universe is non-deterministic, allows for an alternative hypothesis for the nature of consciousness: one where this consciousness could be an external factor, a random variable, that gives us free will in the universe.

The outcome of considering the nature of the universe in such a way makes it clear that there are multiple hypothetical definitions as to the nature of consciousness. We cannot know which one is correct based on the preceding logic, so we must consider all possibilities.

Possible types of consciousness

Due to our trouble in defining consciousness, the actual nature of consciousness is debatable. I currently see two possible explanations for the nature of consciousness: as a product of a running machine or as a fundamental aspect of our universe. I would like to explain that these are purely interesting ideas about the nature of consciousness; I am in no way trying to suggest that either are valid and I present them here as hypotheses to provoke philosophical debate.

As a product of the machine

We as humans believe that we are conscious, whatever that actually means. We deduce this fact using our own brains which are incredibly complex machines that run on biological, chemical and physical processes. We can perceive using our senses and then make judgements based on those perceptions. We can be subjective, making judgements based on certain factors. We can also take command of our bodies using the systems that we learn to control as we develop.

This consciousness can therefore be seen as a product of this machine, our brain. To us, we are conscious because our brain tells us that we are. When we say “we” or “us”, we are referring to ourselves as a whole, our body and mind. I am able to question the nature of my consciousness as my brain allows me to think, “dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum”. But we have already stated that the brain is a machine, albeit a very complicated one. So this consciousness must be a product of the brain itself. If a brain can have consciousness, then why not also another machine, perhaps one that uses a different physical process than our own?

As a fundamental component of the universe

The previous hypothesis is probably the closest approximation to what we know as the truth. While missing much scientific proof, it makes sense that this is the case. If our universe is purely deterministic then this consciousness can be explained as an extremely complex system of physical processes that has allowed us to give us awareness of ourselves in order to improve our fitness. An intelligent entity is more likely to reproduce and is therefore more likely to pass its traits to its offspring.

But what happens if our universe in non-deterministic? If there is an external random variable that is introduced to our universe, perhaps our minds are machines that are tuned to this? While lacking any scientific backing that I know about, this hypothesis raises some interesting questions. Is consciousness a fundamental property of the universe in general? If so, then presumably this consciousness would require some system to allow it to be expressed. This can be likened to a computer system: a set of instructions on their own are no good without a CPU to execute them. The CPU requires energy and input in order to perform a task. Similarly, could we say that our brains are somehow tuned to this consciousness, allowing it to express itself? If this was the case, our bodies are the energy source required for our brains to execute the instructions given to it.

At this point I want to pause and think about the implications of the previous paragraph. Firstly I would like to justify the last paragraph as purely a speculation. There is certainly no scientific basis to this hypothesis and as such it should only be interpreted as an interesting thought experiment. The initial idea of consciousness provides a more scientifically accurate description of what consciousness is, so the latter should not be interpreted as an alternative explanation.

Imagine though that the second hypothesis is correct. In this case, would it be possible for an artificial machine such as a computer to be a viable way for this consciousness to express itself? Perhaps our brains are tuned to this in such a way as to enable expression of this consciousness. If a way could be found for a computer to be tuned, then the programming for this consciousness would not have to come from our own deterministic programming of the machine, but from an external factor which is a natural component of the universe itself. If this component was also subject to an external random variable then the machine could also capable of free will.

This interpretation of consciousness completely changes what we currently define as a thinking machine. In this case, it might not be possible for us to create a conscious machine through software as we are trying to do currently. We are trying to replicate the complex machinery of our brains in computer form, however it might be that consciousness is not a product of our brains themselves. A truly conscious machine in this case would simply be of a complex enough nature to allow the consciousness to express itself rather than having its consciousness programmed into it by the programmer.

The human mind and body

The body as a machine for replicating DNA

We are all at least partly familiar with Charles Darwin’s theories about evolution. Survival of the fittest is a completely intuitive explanation for the natural process of evolution. So what makes one animal fitter than another? The “code” that defines every living creature at the genetic level is the genotype, which is encoded in DNA. Other external factors also influence survival, and our fitness to some extent is also defined by our ability to perceive and avoid potential dangers. Therefore, an animal’s fitness can be attributed to its phenotype, the combination of genotype and external factors.

DNA as a code: the body’s software

Based on the above assumptions, we could say that the DNA is the “software” that controls our genetic make-up. Also, it is this code which is passed down through generations when we reproduce. We could say then that we are machines made for replicating our genetic code (DNA). It is natural to assume that this is the case as it is our code which makes us fit and therefore able to reproduce. A natural outcome of producing a machine that is fit for purpose is that the machine’s code will become more prevalent via natural selection.

All this discussion of software and machines which carry and execute this software is obviously very reminiscent of our current computer systems. A computer without software is useless. In the same way, an organism without “code” and “consciousness” is useless.

Our brain

The brain is responsible for control of our bodies based on input from our senses. Because of this, we believe consciousness to reside within the brain itself. Based on the previous discussions we have two possible explanations for how the brain achieves this. The first option is that consciousness resides purely within the brain and our complex set of input, processing and outputs give ourselves the sense of being conscious. The second, more unorthodox, option is that our brain is somehow connected to the inherent consciousness that exists within the universe. Either way, without a brain, the body is as functional as a computer system without a central processing unit.

So how and why was the brain developed? Considering the first option, the development of the brain is in line with the theories of natural selection. A creature which is able to make complex decisions based upon stimuli is much more likely to survive and to reproduce than a dumb creature that performs actions at random. The brain development, as built by the creature’s genetic make-up, is then a component in fitness and something that will evolve accordingly.

But the development of a brain could also be explained if the second option was found to be true. Creatures that are to be conscious must have the ability for this consciousness to be expressed. Simple biological substances on their own are not seen as conscious. A hand is built from the same fundamental building blocks as a brain, but we know that a hand is not conscious. Similarly, a memory chip is not capable of computation, yet is still made from semiconductors just like a CPU. Perhaps the brain, in some sub-atomic level, is capable of being influenced by factors which are not yet understood, such as this inherent randomness in the universe. So if a biological machine can be capable of expressing this consciousness then surely an artificial machine could too, given the correct method of “tuning”.


No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. – Albert Einstein

This article, rather than trying to provide answers, has attempted to pose questions. Questions which I believe are certainly worth considering as we progress ever further in our endeavours to produce more intelligent machines. Some of these questions may never be answered, but I strongly believe that more can be learnt about both ourselves and the machines we create in the process of trying.

The two main opposing hypotheses presented here provide two completely independent approaches to true artificial intelligence. The first assumes that our current understanding is correct but the other would require a complete re-evaluation of current approaches. This is not to belittle any current approaches to artificial intelligence of course; certainly some current approaches provide excellent outcomes to specific situations. Rather, this re-evaluation would need to be performed when attempting to produce true consciousness in a machine.

In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness. – Marshall McLuhan