If you ask almost any mainstream philosopher familiar with the problem of consciousness for a definition of consciousness, more often than not they will define it in terms of “what-it-is-like-ness”. For these philosophers, if there is “something it is like” to be an entity then that entity is conscious, period. This works pretty well for most objects. Is there something it is like to be human? Most people would say yes. Therefore, humans are conscious. Is there something it is like to be a rock? Most people would say no. Therefore, rocks are not conscious. On first blush then, it seems like “what-it-is-like-ness” is a good working definition of what consciousness “is”. But the rock and human cases are the easy objects. What about objects like an earthworm? Is there something it is like to be an earthworm? Whereas it is seemingly obvious that there is nothing it is like to be a rock, how can we answer this question about an earthworm? It seems somewhat intuitive to say that there is something it is like to be an earthworm. Therefore, it would seem that we must say that the earthworm is conscious. But in this post I want to press these intuitions. For me, it doesn’t seem immediately wrong to say that an earthworm lacks consciousness. This seems like a perfectly coherent thing to say. If it is, then we must either say that there is nothing it is like to be an earthworm, or that consciousness does not overlap with what-it-is-like-ness. Since it seems wrong to say that there is nothing it is like to be an earthworm, then we are compelled to reexamine the mainstream definition of consciousness as “what-it-is-like-ness”.
But if consciousness is not what-it-is-like-ness, then what is it? Well, we seem to be pretty clear on the fact that humans are capable of being conscious, and that rocks aren’t, so what is the difference between a rock and a human? The difference needs to be such that it isn’t shared by the earthworm and the human, so we will need to rule out the capacity for perception and action, or the possession of a nervous system. A clue for narrowing in on this difference can be found in the case of the sleeping mother. Imagine a mother is asleep in one room and a newborn infant is asleep in another room. The mother is sound asleep and oblivious to sounds like the noisy air conditioner turning on, or the sound of traffic outside the window. But the slightest noise of the infant is enough to catch her attention and wake her. Now, it seems obvious to most people that the sleeping mother was capable of a complex perceptual act, since presumably the perception of the infant’s small cry against the background noise of the house is a case of genuine perception. So here is the million dollar question: was the mother conscious of the baby’s cry while she was alseep?
The field of consciousness studies seems to be split down the middle when it comes to answering this question. On the one hand you have the first-order theorists who claim that since the perception of the baby’s cry necessarily requires awareness of the cry, and since they define consciousness as first-order awareness, then the mother was in fact conscious of the baby’s cry. On the other hand you have the second-order theorists who claim that it is not enough for the mother to be simply aware of the cry to be conscious. Rather, they claim that in order to be conscious of the cry, the mother must be aware that she is aware of the cry. The awareness must be higher-order in order to be conscious.
My intuitions lean towards the second-order theorists. I think that the mother is not conscious of the baby’s cry. Rather, her adaptive unconscious is aware of the baby’s cry and upon perceiving the cry, this information is globally assembled and shunted into consciousness where it shortcuts decision making. But the unconscious perception of the cry is genuine mental activity and the unconscious awareness of the cry is genuine awareness. I find the second-order story of the sleeping mother much more intuitive since it strikes me as patently misguided to say that someone could be conscious of something even when they are asleep and not aware that they are aware. Obviously while sleeping the mother’s mind is in some respect aware of what’s happening in the environment otherwise she wouldn’t wake up upon hearing her baby stir. But I think it is misguided to define consciousness in terms of such simple awareness, for what follows from such a definition is the idea that earthworms are conscious, since they too possess the capacity for first-order awareness. And I think it is most sensible to restrict consciousness such that the earthworm and the sleeping mother lacks it. But just to be clear, consciousness is also not to be confused with mere alertness, wakefulness, and awareness of events in either the body or the world. For the earthworm is aware of certain properties in the environment, yet it is not conscious (in my opinion).
A further question is whether there is something it is like to be a sleeping mother who becomes aware of her baby’s cry. The first-order theorists claim that yes there is something it is like to be the sleeping mother insofar as the mother is aware of the baby and that they think that there is something it is like to be aware of things in the world. For most second-order theorists, there is not something it is like to be the sleeping mother since the mother lacks second-order awareness. This is where my intuitions depart from the second-order theorists, for I think that even though the mother is not conscious, there is still something it is like to be asleep, just like there is something it is like to be an earthworm. Now, some theorists will immediately reply that it is absurd to claim that there is something it is like to be asleep. But we’ve already seen that the sleeping person is still capable of first-order awareness of the environment, and it does seem intuitive that there is something it is like to have first-order awareness, otherwise we are forced to claim that there is nothing it is like to be an earthworm and this is an undesirable position.
So what are we left with in terms of a definition of consciousness? I think the second-order theorists are on the right track insofar as they emphasize that it is not enough for an entity to be aware of something in order to be conscious; one must also be aware that you are aware. However, I disagree with the second-order theorists insofar as I don’t think what needs explaining is what-it-is-like-ness, since I think there is something it is like to be an earthworm and obviously the earthworm is not aware of its own awareness. So to explain consciousness, we need to explain how it’s possible for an entity to be aware of its own awareness. While I won’t go into the details in this post, regular readers of this blog know that I take a Jaynesian approach to this question, and think that what makes it possible for us to be aware of our awareness is to have a linguistic concept for “awareness”. New linguistic concepts enable us to pay attention to new aspects of reality. The linguistic concept of “awareness” allows us to pay attention to awareness qua awareness. So the hypothesis here is that unless you have a linguistic concept for awareness, you cannot be conscious, because you cannot pay attention and thus be aware of your own awareness. So on this view, infants who lack the linguistic concept for awareness are not conscious. This also restricts the historicality of consciousness to those points in history where humans first started developing mentalistic concepts. This is in accord with Daniel Dennett’s famous analogy of baseball. Just like one cannot play baseball without the concept of baseball, one cannot be conscious unless you have the right concepts in place.