The Nature of Consciousness

By consciousness I mean perception, which is the only kind of consciousness we or any creature has. Physical existence is that existence we are directly conscious of, the world we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. By perception, I mean the seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting as well as interoception (the direct perception of internal states).

Perception, as we experience it, is taken for granted. It is very much like looking at the garden through a window. While we are seeing the flowers and birds, we do not notice there is a window at all. We have a tendency to ignore consciousness in the same way, and its nature is often never explicitly identified.

[NOTE: The chapter, "Perception," addresses the functional nature of consciousness and its totally reliability.]

The Characteristics of Consciousness

Consciousness is an attribute of living organisms and has no meaning outside the context of living organism.

There are at least eight specific characteristics of conscious perception that demonstrate that consciousness, like life, is not physical in nature.

  • Individual and Private
  • Continuity
  • Unity
  • Consciousness of Physical not Physical
  • Tasting is the Only Test
  • Pain
  • No Physical Description
  • TV in an Empty Room

Consciousness Individual and Private

Consciousness in all other creatures except ourselves is implied, because every conscious organism has their own consciousness and no organism can be conscious of any other organism's consciousness.

[NOTE: The individuality and privacy of consciousness is sometimes referred to as, "subjective." This unfortunate designation implies that consciousness is not objective. In fact, both the existence of consciousness is an objective fact, and what consciousness is conscious of is objective reality.]

The fact that consciousness is experienced privately, and cannot be directly perceived, and is therefore not itself a physical existent (though dependent on the physical for its existence), does not mean it cannot be objectively identified. It exists as an attribute of living organisms, and is therefore objective (though not physical), because it is independent of our consciousness or knowledge of it.

While the privacy of consciousness is generally understood, it's significance to philosophy is not always apparent. It is because consciousness is experienced privately that its nature is frequently neglected. What we mean by "being conscious," the actual experience itself, can only be known individually. Anything in the physical world that can be perceived, can be perceived by anyone. No one can perceive your consciousness or my consciousness, as we experience it. Technically, we cannot even "perceive" our own consciousness. We do not know we are conscious by perceiving it, (seeing it, hearing it, feeling it, or in any other way perceiving it), we know it, because we are conscious. We do not know we can see by seeing our seeing, we know we can see because we do.


An organism has only one consciousness and it is the same consciousness from moment to moment, day to day, and year to year. It is the same consciousness from the moment it becomes consciousness until the organisms dies. It is because consciousness is a characteristic of life, not the physical aspects of the organism, this is true. Notice, that the physical characteristics of an organism can change. Hypothetically, all of the physical parts could be changed, but it would still be the same organism, because it would still be the same life process and the same consciousness. It is the life process that is the independent existence that identifies the organism as a particular organism, not the physical components, and consciousness is an attribute of life.

My consciousness does not cease to exist when I sleep, or when under an anesthetic, or when knocked "out" by a blow to the head. By analogy, in those cases, consciousness is like the life of a seed. A seed is a living thing, although it does not exhibit any of the usual characteristics of life externally; we say it is "dormant" because under proper conditions it will germinate and grow. If irradiated, or exposed to certain temperatures it "dies" and cannot be germinated. Consciousness, during sleep or when anesthetized, is like the life of a seed, dormant, because when the anesthesia wears off or the hypothalamus is stimulated, consciousness revives. If consciousness truly ceases, however, nothing can revive it, and the individual who was that consciousness ceases to exist.

I Am My Consciousness

The "I," which is my consciousness, remains the same thing no matter what other things change. However little I know or how much I learn, no matter what changes there are to the physical aspects of my body, no matter what I do or how long I live, from moment to moment, day to day, and year to year, I am the same person, because I am the same consciousness. There is no physical aspect of my being that cannot be changed that can change my conscious identity, because my conscious identity is my consciousness—my consciousness, is my "self;" it is "I."

[NOTE: I say, "conscious identity," to differentiate it from metaphysical identity as an individual organism which at any moment includes all my qualities and characteristics, including the possible qualities that can change.]

From the moment I open my eyes for the first time to the moment I close them for the last time, I have only one consciousness, and what I mean by "I" is that consciousness. My existence as a person is my consciousness. If my consciousness should cease, whatever happens to my body, I cease to exist.

That identity which is my consciousness, cannot be discovered or described by any physical attribute or any physical action of my body or biology, and no physical attribute of my body or any physical action of my body can account for it or it's nature. It is not biological.

The Unity of Consciousness

For any organism, there is only one consciousness and it is the same consciousness that perceives what is seen, what is tasted, what is heard, smelled, and felt. It is the same consciousness that feels the wheel of the car with the hands, the accelerator pedal with the foot, sees the light change from red to green, and hears the music on the radio all simultaneously. This aspect of consciousness is almost never recognized. It is one reason, for example, no computer or computer program will ever create consciousness. It would be impossible, at the physical level, to make all the discrete physical events required for detection of separate phenomena be a single event. Because consciousness is an aspect of life, however, which is not physical and not limited by physical attributes, such as discreteness, the same consciousness can be conscious of an indefinite number of things at the same time.

Furthermore, every individual is only one consciousness, one person, conscious of what one is thinking, seeing and hearing, and what one is feeling, emotionally; and one is conscious of these, and all the other things one is aware of, simultaneously and continuously.

To some extent one can determine what one will be conscious of by where they look and what they do, such as turning on or off a radio, or opening a book. In those cases, one is merely changing what there is available for one to be conscious of. But one can also focus the attention on some things one is conscious of and ignore some others, even though one never ceases to be conscious of everything available to consciousness at any time.

It would be impossible, at the physical level, to make all the discrete physical events required for detection of separate phenomena be a single event. What that means, is, there is no physical system which is able to detect sounds (microphones, for example) images (a video camera, for example), pressure and weight (a transponder system, for example) temperature (an electronic thermometer for example), movement (an electro-gyroscope for example) which can all be recognized in all its detail as a single event or process. The information that all these detection systems provide, at the physical level, must forever remain discrete. The laws of physics and information theory, both determined by the principles that govern physical existence, exclude the possibility that this information can be integrated into a single thing or phenomenon, like my consciousness. If my consciousness were a phenomenon of the physical, it would not be a single thing, but a collection of separate and discrete things. At the physical level, the unity of consciousness is an impossibility.

There is a way to convert a number of different data sources into a single data representation. It works only if all the information is converted to an analog state, that is, a signal that can be modulated by or added to with each different data stream. Such a continuous stream can be analyzed digitally, but that analysis succeeds only by separating the original streams.

Our ability to hear is an example of this merging of separate data streams into a single one. When hearing an orchestra play, the sound reaching the ear has many different sources, but they are all merged together into a single very complex analog sound wave. Nevertheless we can distinguish all the separate instruments even while hearing them all simultaneously. A computer can also discriminate between different sound sources but to do so it requires separate detectors (or processes) for each detected sound. The process is called signal analysis. The trick would be to have all the separate sounds detected simultaneously with the merged signal by the same process (or detector), an impossibility for any kind of physical processor, analog or digital.]

Which Cell is Conscious

But we do not have to depend on physics or information theory to see the problem the unity of conscious is to the physicalist view. Even if we only consider vision, the optic nerve is actually a bundle of nerves, each carrying separate signals to the brain. They all terminate close to one another but at slightly different places at different cells. Many cells in the brain respond to these signals, at the physical level, "sight" consists of many interrelated but discrete events. If many different cells are involved in "seeing" how do the separate behaviors of each of those cells become integrated into a single phenomenon called "seeing."

Unless there is one "master consciousness cell" that is somehow fed perceptual information by all the other cells of the brain, there is not "one event" at the physical level, but a collection of many separate events that cannot be anything but separate physical events.

Ours is not only a single consciousness awareness of everything in the visual field, but simultaneously every thing that can be heard, or felt, or tasted, or smelled. At the physical level, all the discrete neurological events related to consciousness are discrete and separate and no physical method is possible that could integrate all these separate physical events into the single phenomena which is our consciousness.

Consciousness of the Physical not itself Physical

It is the private nature of consciousness that has been the source of many of philosophy's greatest difficulties. It is the source of all mystic ideas of the "soul" for example. It is very difficult to describe the nature of consciousness as it is consciously experienced and those philosophers who have recognized its significance have gone to great lengths to do so.

Consciousness, the actual experience, cannot be described in terms of any physical quality or attribute, because consciousness is not physical and cannot be attributed to any physical events or actions. Consciousness is an attribute of life, the process. It is to the life process itself that the physiological aspects of the neurological system of an organism presents those qualities of existents that can be detected by the nervous system to be perceived.

The significance is this: Consciousness and that which we are conscious of cannot be the same thing. The physical is that which we are conscious of (directly perceive), consciousness is directly perceiving (being conscious of) the physical. It is this fact that has led so many philosophers to posit some kind of dualism. The mistake is the assumption that consciousness is something separate from the physical attributes of an organism. But life is an attribute of a living organism, without which it would not be an organism, and consciousness is an attribute of those kinds of organisms that see, hear, feel, smell and taste, without which they would not be those kinds of organisms.

Tasting is the Only Test

Just as the nature of consciousness cannot be explained in physical neither can conscious perception itself. There is no way to determine from the physical characteristics of anything how it will taste, for example, or what any particular chemical will smell like. The only way to know what anything will taste or smell like is to actually taste or smell it.

This is the reason it is so difficult to explain what something tastes like to someone who has never tasted it. Unless it has ingredients that one has tasted before, it is, in fact, impossible to describe the taste of a thing.

This is true of all the perceptual qualities. It is the reason why no description of sound can make a deaf person know what sound "sounds" like, and why no explanation can make a blind person know what anything "looks" like. Yet, it is quite possible to explain all the physical and technical aspects of sound to a deaf person and of light to a blind person.


What is particularly interesting about pain is the fact it is not a physical quality, though it is consciousness of the physical, which all of perception must be. Unlike color, for example, for which there is a corresponding physical attribute (the transmission, reflection, or emission of light at a specific wave length) there is no corresponding physical attribute of any physical existent that is pain.

All human consciousness is comprised of percepts, and pain is a percept. All perception is consciousness of the physical, and pain is consciousness of the physical. However, it is not consciousness of any physical attributes of any physical existent—it is consciousness of a particular physical state of some aspect of a living organism.

A broken bone is, to consciousness, extremely painful, but a broken bone, as a physical phenomenon, in terms of physics, has no attribute which can be called pain. No Xray, physical examination, or analysis of any kind will find any attribute about a broken bone which can be called pain. The pain associated with a broken bone exists only in the context of a living organism and only to consciousness. Pain exists and is real, it is an indication of a real physical state in a biological context, but does not itself exist physically, and has no physical attributes or explanation.

There is another aspect of pain that helps illustrate what consciousness is. When I feel pain, I generally react to that feeling, like holding the finger I just hit with the hammer and yelling "ouch!" or something stronger. But I do not have to react at all. I can "ignore" the pain, if I really have to. Nevertheless, I feel the pain just as much—it is the pain I feel that is the conscious experience, not my reaction to it. (So much for behaviorism.)

No Physical Description of Consciousness

No description of any physical aspect or physical process related to perception explains or describes any perceptual quality or aspect of consciousness.

No matter what physical (mechanical-electrical-chemical) actions are described, that is all they can describe. When the biologist and physiologist have described all that the nervous system and brain have done, they still have not described consciousness—they have only described a complex of physical events, which no matter how complex will never be a description of consciousness or any aspect of it.

The TV in the Empty Room

It has been suggested that given sufficient complexity in the proper configuration, it is possible for a physical process to produce "consciousness." It is supposed, for example, that a complex nervous system like that of the higher animals and human beings in some way "produces" consciousness. [The argument uses the pseudo-concept "emergence" which supposedly means new attributes just "emerge" from the operation of other things that did not otherwise exist.]

Conscious vision, according the physicalist, is produced by the nervous system providing information from the eyes that are processed in some way by the brain, which process is "seeing." In fact, no physical process can be vision—even if in some way information reaching the brain from the eye through the optic nerves could be processed into an image, it would be like an image on a TV—but an image on a TV is not vision and can only be consciously seen if someone is watching the TV.

The physicalist's description of consciousness is the description of a TV in an empty room. It is not an "image" that is consciousness; it is the "seeing," not of an image, but existence itself. Whatever the physical brain does, it cannot itself be consciousness. The behavior of the brain is only more physical action; it only makes available to consciousness what is seen, heard, felt, smelled and tasted—the brain itself cannot see, hear, feel, smell or taste anything.