The notion of consciousness in the last couple of decades has been the subject of an intense academic and mass media debates, and to focus on them is still useful to refer to the work of the philosopher David Chalmers (Chalmers, 1995).
Accordingly, one should make a discrimination between the ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ problem of consciousness. The easy problem is that of sensorial consciousness, (also called ‘access consciousness’, see for example Thompson, 2004) which refers to the five perception senses (seeing, hearing, touching, etc.) plus mind/thinking. It is considered ‘easy’ only in the sense that at least we can see a relation with our brain- neurons whose connections are implied in all these aspects of cognition. The hard problem instead is related to the subjective experience: my feeling of blue, or my wonder to beauty, namely a subjective experience, which cannot be shared with others - my blue is only my blue. This cannot be linked to the sensorial perception or to the brain activity: actually we don’t even know why it is there. So, according to Chalmers’ view, it is as if there were two different states of consciousness. Not everyone (including us) agrees with this dichotomy, but there is no time to dwell on this in this very short article.
Rather, we would like to propose a simple-minded experiment to introduce the basic nature of the “subjective” consciousness. For that, we would like to ask a question to our readers: “Right now, are you being aware?”. Or, more simply: “Are you conscious?”. Your answer is of course positive: “Yes, I am conscious”.
But now notice one very important point: your answer “Yes, I am conscious” is a thought, but this thought is a consequence of a preliminary checking up. Did you need to think about it, or the evidence of being aware was already there before any thought?
This elementary, preliminary awareness - namely, the pure and simple fact of being aware, independently from what one is aware of - is for us the basic essence of consciousness. Does that mean that you are conscious of your being? Namely, that there is a being, distinct from consciousness, which consciousness is aware of? In order to find an answer, let us revert to our phenomenological exploration by asking our readers another simple question: “Right now, are you sure that you exist?” After a short pause, the answer will be “Yes”, beyond any doubt.
Both the question and the answer were thoughts, but, again, in the short gap between them the undeniable evidence of your being became immediately apparent. Did you need to ponder on the answer, or the evidence of being was there before any thought? If you were not already present, how could you even think at all? The very fact that our being is intuitively evident, proves not only that we exist, but also that we are aware, otherwise our being would be unknown.
Is being-awareness something that I have, or rather something that I am? Could I ever exist apart from being-awareness? Could I ever experience two ‘my selves’ at the same time? Not at all, there is always only one ‘I’ at a time, which is the same as being-awareness. Therefore, if I am only one and I am being-awareness, then being and awareness cannot be two separate things, but just two aspects of the same identity, or rather two different ways to describe it. Consequently, consciousness cannot be aware of being, because, in order to do so, there should be two different things - consciousness (namely the knowing subject) and being (namely the known object) -, while they are just two aspects of the same thing.
Someone could object: “But I am clearly conscious of my existence!”. This is not entirely correct: one can be aware only of the thought “I exist”, which is not the actual being, but rather its translation into a mental object made of words. This is actually a mere content of consciousness. Being-awareness is not knowable as an object, it shines as a self-evident actuality.
Note that also the expression “I know to know”, as a reflexive level of consciousness, is due to our thinking, and as such is only an object of consciousness. The sense of being (which the mind translates into the words “I am”) is actually the precondition for everything to appear: if first of all I am not here, then no perception, no sensation, no action, and no thought can be experienced.
So consciousness as being-awareness - i.e. the very root of our identity - is epistemologically and existentially prior to the appearance of anything else. According to this view, this immediate aware presence is precisely what the term ‘consciousness as such’ points to: namely, the very ground and precondition of any specific content that arises in experience. How is it with science, then?
Over the last years, several schools of neurobiology and cognitive science have turned into the study of consciousness. However, as already pointed out by some researchers (Bitbol, 2004; Bitbol 2008; Bitbol and Luisi, 2011; Thompson, 2015), this kind of approach may be quite problematic. In fact, most of the explanations or interpretations of consciousness state that it is something ‘out there’ that can be studied objectively - for example an emergent property of the brain, or a quantum state, or a particularly complex brain resonating structure (for a critical review, see Thompson, 2015).
However, consciousness as such - namely the very fact of being aware, a sort of ‘awakeness’, or ‘first person aliveness’, or ‘aware presence’ which allows every experience to appear and as such should not be confused with its own specific ‘contents’- is, so to speak, the ‘bottom line’ which cannot be consistently explained as the end result of any physical or mental cause, since no ‘explanation’ nor ‘cause’ could appear without consciousness already being there as a precondition. Therefore, since all phenomena can be observed, studied or explained if and only if consciousness is already there, it is impossible to regard consciousness as the end product of any other phenomenon without stumbling upon an epistemological paradox.
Despite this simple common sense statement, many scientific views state, in way or another, that consciousness is a ‘secondary’ property that ‘emerges’ from the brain (once that this reaches a critical level of complexity). We maintain that this hypothesis is epistemologically flown. In other words, any observation or theory about the so called ‘objective’ reality can never include consciousness, that is the very background of all observing and theorizing activity: consciousness can never be ‘observed’ or ‘known’, because it is always prior to whatever object is observable and knowable.
It appears then, that science may be unable to study consciousness ‘objectively’ (i.e. by describing it in ‘third person’), because it is always given to us in ‘first person’, and this is precisely its only distinctive feature: inevitably, whenever science tries to study consciousness, it is obliged to force it into the range of observable objects, so as to falsify its very essence of observing subject through an epistemological inconsistency. As already mentioned, this has been observed already by a number of authors - see also our references. So the scientific study of consciousness as such seems to be not even a ‘hard problem’, but actually an unsolvable problem.
How can we avoid this epistemological loop? Chalmers, in addressing this question, puts forwards the idea that consciousness may be a fundamental property, just like space or time. Space and time cannot be defined, and we cannot say that they derive from some other property - they are there and form the fundament of all our science and our thinking. So should it be for consciousness? Time does not seem mature enough to accept this. Nor, we want to force this solution in this short assay. It is however interesting, and in a way strange, that some authoritative thinkers of quantum physics have been more willing to take seriously this hypothesis - and already several years ago.
For example, M. Plank (1931) said:
I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.
E. Schrödinger (1931) was in total agreement with him:
Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.
As a matter of fact, in our phenomenological exploration of consciousness (that partakes to every experience as a knowing subject, but is not a knowable object), we can safely rely on experience itself, but as soon as we begin to reflect on it, we must never forget that, due to its own intrinsic limitations, thought is to be regarded only as a preparatory tool for a sort of intuitive understanding of consciousness.
We are of course handling a large problem, and this short assay (there is an article by us somewhat loner in the book edited by S. Shyam) is meant as an incentive to go further into the literature, beginning from the few references given here.
Text by Mauro Bergonzi and Pier Luigi Luisi
University “L’Orientale”, Naples, Italy.
Bergonzi M. (2011): Il sorriso segreto dell’essere, Mondadori, Milano
Bergonzi M., and Luisi, P.L., in Shyam, S., Editor, Space and Time and limits of human understanding, in press
Bitbol M. (2008): “Is Consciousness primary?”, NeuroQuantology, vol. 6, n°1, 53-72; (2016): “À propos du point aveugle de la science”, in G. Hess & D. Bourg (eds.), Science, conscience et environnement, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris
Bitbol M. and Luisi P.L. (2011): “Science and the self-referentiality of consciousness”, Journal of Cosmology, 14, 4728-4743
Chalmers D. (1995): Facing up the problem of consciousness. Journal of consciousness studies, 2(3)200-19
Plank M. (1931): The Observer, January 25th
Schrödinger E. (1931): The Observer, January 11th; (1964): My View of the World, Cambridge University Press, London
Thompson E. (2015): Waking, Dreaming, Being, Columbia University Press, New York.