Series – Philosophy – The Riddle of Consciousness – I

Addressing Consciousness

“Cogito ergo sum” [“I think therefore I am”] – Rene Descartes

A woman suffers a car crash; parts of the brain had been crushed. She could open her eyes but did could not respond to lights, sounds or jabs. This is what we in the scientific domain would call a vegetative state. During her MRI scan (that detects blood flow to the active parts of her body) something perplexing was observed – when sentences were recited parts of the brain involved in the processing of language lit up, when she was asked to imagine visiting her room parts of the brain associated with navigating space and locating places ramped up. Her scans were scarcely different from the healthy individual – even at vegetative state she was showing the glimmering of consciousness.

Here we are moving into a specific direction in our expedition into the realms of metaphysics and epistemology. The study of consciousness is one of the most challenging and difficult tasks before the smartest humans in the world, and it won’t be an overstatement to say that none of them can claim with certainty that they are any closer to unravelling the riddle is consciousness. In the study of consciousness everything from cognitive sciences and Upanishads have been invoked, verily joining the threads of civilizations, cultures and philosophies is the mystery of consciousness, indeed this is what makes us human too. Understanding consciousness can have consequences in the field of Ethics, politics and sciences and in general how we understand our world. In this Article we wish to address the problem of consciousness and how it has moved from theological discussions to the forefront of cognitive sciences, it is indeed fundamental to philosophy more so now than ever, where we may be very close to actually solving its riddle.

Definition: Defining consciousness is a very difficult task. We reproduce the definition given by philosopher John Searle for its simple and all inclusive disposition.

By consciousness we mean those states of sentience or awareness that typically begin when we wake up in the morning from a dreamless sleep and continue throughout the day until we fall asleep again

The historic view of consciousness is steeped in deep mysticism. The major religions locate consciousness in a soul that survives the body or deserts it to fuse into a global mind.  Consciousness is life as we know it. The conviction that other people can suffer and flourish as each of us does is the essence of empathy and the foundation of morality; it is based on the premise that other humans are conscious sentient beings like ourselves.

We need to get some misconceptions about consciousness cleared though 1) Consciousness does not depend on language, even animals, deaf and dumb people exhibit consciousness where they do not have and enabled function of language. 2) Consciousness cannot be equated with self-awareness; we may feel a lack of self-awareness when we are deeply engrossed in a musical treat or sensual activity but lack of awareness is not the same as lack of consciousness (knocked out cold).

To Be Continued …