The Weiler Psi

Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics

The Properties of Consciousness


Consciousness is the hard problem.  Philosophers speculate on it, scientists work around it, but an actual detailed explanation of consciousness has eluded mankind.  Think of this essay as an exploration.  I may not get it right, but this is a journey, not a destination.  There are many reasons for the challenge of understanding, starting with the nature of consciousness itself.  There is no question that consciousness is important; after all, it is the conveyor of all experience and without it, we cannot experience anything at all.

In most areas of human experience we find that there are are shades of meaning and that the explanation changes as we add more detail.  But this isn’t the case with my previous statement.  There is nothing I can think of that we can state with more certainty than this: consciousness is absolutely and completely required for acquiring ALL experience, no matter how trivial.  No consciousness = no experience.

Where this leads us is clear: consciousness is required in order to study consciousness.  So even before a discussion begins, we are faced with a riddle wrapped in an enigma.  How can you properly look at something when you’re never in a position to examine it objectively?  This is a little like trying to describe water from the inside of an endless bottomless ocean with no access to open air and no previous concept of what being outside of water would be like.  We can only describe water in relation to things that are not water, but we’re not really sure what that might be.

You can never be sure that you’ve found something outside of consciousness if you can never get outside of consciousness to look at it.  From there we can surmise our First Property of Consciousness:

1.  It is impossible to describe or conceive of a state of “Outside Consciousness.”  (Because we need consciousness to imagine what this might be.)

Therefore all descriptions of the properties of consciousness are based in consciousness.  That’s the way it is and there is nothing to be done for it.

The sciences have had a particularly hard time creating theories of consciousness because they cannot wrap their heads around the First Property.  Materialism, the philosophy upon which most scientific fields are based, operates on the premise that there exists such a thing as “Outside Consciousness.” (i.e. an objective universe) Yet if such a state of “Outside Consciousness” exists, it is completely unprovable and therefore unscientific since it is impossible to prove that this state exists in any form.

This does not mean that we need to toss out all the sciences, but merely recognize that they are all fundamentally products of consciousness.  Because all input is dictated by conscious awareness, all products of that input are products of consciousness.  Where this gets confusing is that the products of consciousness apparently operate according to rules that are different from consciousness itself.  For the sake of clarity, we’ll refer to products of consciousness as physical existence. This brings us to our Second Property of Consciousness:

2.  Physical existence is reducible and scalable.  Consciousness Itself, is not reducible or scalable at all.

If you start with all the pieces of a car, you can put them together in a certain way and it becomes a car.  If you take a hundred and fifty people and put them together in a certain way, you do not get a tribe.  In order for a tribe to come into being, the people have to choose to work together to create one and be successful at it.  What they create has no physical presence;  it is composed entirely of a social agreement based on ideas and emotions shared by a group of people.  No social agreement = no tribe.  As ephemeral as this sounds, it is every bit as real as a car.

Physical existence, let’s say a car, (but it can be anything with a physical existence) can be broken down to pieces until they are too small to measure.  Cars are also part of a physical system of matter the size of the universe, which may itself be part of a larger system of universes, and so on.  Physical systems can be scaled up and down.  They have obvious pieces that fit in certain ways and have specific interactions that can potentially be figured out.

Consciousness however, does not work this way.  Thoughts and emotions are not reducible.  There is no such thing as half a thought or half an emotion.  There are no pieces that you can put together to come up with a thought or emotion.  Even if you consider consciousness systems, such as an ant colony or a tribe of humans, those are not reducible either.  An ant, by itself, is perfectly definable as itself.  It does not necessarily need to be defined as part of a system.  Similarly, an ant colony is not defined by its individual ants, but rather by their collective efforts.  If you remove half the ants, what you get is a smaller colony, not half a colony.  A colony or a tribe is a thing that is made up of individuals that are complete conscious entities in their own right, but is not defined by them, but rather by their system of thoughts and emotions.  You can add and subtract these individuals ad infinitum (and they can be very diverse) and as long as the system of thoughts and emotions stays intact, the colony or tribe remains intact.  Because it has no physical presence, size is irrelevant. Whether a tribe has two people or a billion, it is still a tribe.

Consciousness, as we’ve seen behaves in some very fundamentally different ways than our physical existence.  Here is another way in which it is different.

3.  physical existence tends towards simplifying.  (i.e. entropy)  Consciousness tends towards complexity.  (Towards increasingly complex patterns)

The easiest way to understand this is to look at a physical object when it possesses consciousness and then look at what happens when that consciousness leaves.  An object with consciousness grows in complexity (in its thinking) for as long as the physical existence allows, and the same object begins decaying immediately when all consciousness (life) is removed.  You can also see the tendency toward complexity in any family in the world where even identical twins have different personalities.  The bigger the family, the bigger the spread of different personalities.  As social groups get larger, they get more complex as people learn and adapt to those around them, who are also learning and adapting.  More than that though, social groups will have a tendency towards internal diversity.  Consciousness works to achieve a complex interaction, not a simple one.  It is within living systems that one finds the greatest complexity for a reason.  Consciousness is required for an increase in complexity.

Thoughts and feelings do not have any physical component.  People simply share the same thought or feeling.  It is through this sharing of thoughts and feelings that complexity multiplies.  Thoughts can exist forever, transferred through a wide variety of mediums such as oral history, writing, video or other means and are not copied.  Because they lack physicality of any sort, it is not unreasonable to assume thoughts do not age or dissipate at all regardless of the passage of time, although there is no proof for this.

4.  Consciousness is not tiered.  Terms like greater and lesser do not apply.  All consciousness interacts equally with all other consciousness.

Consciousness is basically all one thing with many forms, so there are no greater, or master consciousnesses and no lesser or slave consciousnesses.  There is no system for interaction and no organizational methods.  Some forms function with greater intensity than others, but they also are part of larger forms in which each portion only plays a role.  There is no “winner.”

In conclusion, I think that it helps to think of consciousness this way.  We are so caught up in a physical existence most of the time, it’s hard to remember that this existence is essentially the product of our thoughts.  By expanding our awareness of how different consciousness is from what we normally experience we can see our own reality in more depth.

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11 comments on “The Properties of Consciousness

  1. Jay Jacobus
    October 24, 2014

    Consciousness is in the present. A person is aware in the present. Remembers in the present. Thinks in the present.

    The consciousness of yesterday no longer exists.

    This another property of consciousness.

    • Peter
      October 25, 2014

      With consciousness there is no past, present, or future. Trying to apply time to consciousness is to embed it in a human construct in an attempt to understand it. “Understanding” means being outside of, which is not possible, in the case of consciousness.

      You are also confusing consciousness with the contents or effects of consciousness as perceived by humans.

  2. Paul Roe
    May 14, 2014

    Tres tres interessante! I am grasping all over the place for some description of the properties of consciousness – as in, what is it? Like, maybe using some form of non-physical field as a starting point, but definitely not ending there since it is not that at all, I would think. Just something that treats it empirically and doesn’t get lost in philosophy or too much abstraction, which is why starting off thinking of consciousness as a field, and how to disprove that premise may be a good start.

    And, what of continuity? I fall into a deep sleep or am knocked out and consciousness is gone, no experience. But, I wake up and am there again. Where was I in the interim? This baffles me the same way the Fermi Paradox or Crash the film does. But, not everyone is equally blown away by this particular quirk of consciousness.

    Also, what of parsimony? Or the problem of other minds. You create a person cell by cell, neuron by neuron and eventually have a fully functioning human, more or less an extremely complex physical biological machine. And, then consciousness is grafted on top of it to complete the picture. Problem is, once you create the human machine, it violates parsimony (a principle, not a law, anyway) to require that consciousness be added to the biological thing to be fully functioning. Like, how does it fit in? This is baffling as well.

    But, you are definitely on the right track and are taking it by the horns and not being put off or restricted by neuroscience or even Chalmers and other property dualists. You kind of just draft your theory from the bottom up like Spinoza, which is impressive.

    Just ranting here since the topic is extremely fascinating!

  3. Eugene Pharr
    July 17, 2013

    A great deal of your position is based on an axiom that you state as “No consciousness = no experience”. I believe this axiom is fundamentally flawed.

    On a very primitive level, evolutionary genetics provides a framework for non-conscious acquisition of experience. It does so by means of survival and reproduction on top of a mutable “base code” that is prone to “experimental drift” (i.e. mutation) that can function as a sort of experiment processor. The result is a form of experience encoded as surviving proliferated code.

    Not only does the code base grow and diversify, but it forms “conclusions”.

    As a cognitive model it’s really REALLY slow. But it’s relentless.

    Ironically, it is on top of this model of biological evolution that human consciousness has emerged. (And, I would argue, significant levels of consciousness also exist in many of the higher mammals.)

    While I agree with you that consciousness is an anti-entropic organizing principle, such conditions are not forbidden by thermodynamics. Rather, they require a stable energy gradient in order to persist. Non-biological manifestations of such things include Hurricanes. The biosphere of Earth provides just such an environment, with a rich and stable gradient across which sentience and consciousness has been able to express itself. It remains to be seen if we can engineer ourselves out of the box in which we originated.

    As a model for the preservation and proliferation of biological life, I think evolutionary biology’s experiment with consciousness is not yet concluded. It remains to be seen whether consciousness is to the overall benefit or detriment of the greater pool of life.

    • craigweiler
      July 17, 2013

      Thank you for providing an alternate view in such rich detail. I appreciate the thoughtfulness that went into it. Because your view comes from a fundamentally different philosophy, I’m not going to provide a rebuttal since it’s apples and oranges.
      I’ll just leave it be and provide the forum for intelligent disagreement.

  4. Peter Beacham
    February 13, 2012

    RE your properties of consciousness point 4: “Consciousness is not tiered. Terms like greater and lesser do not apply. All consciousness interacts equally with all other consciousness.”

    You are probably in error here. Consciousness is found in the brain, heart, gut and, every cell of the body. Dr. Candace Pert, in her 1997 book, Molecules of Emotion, showed that every cell has consciousness. Dr. Andrew Armour had discovered evidence that the heart is a network of neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins, and support cells that enable it to act independently of the brain. 3 The heart learns, remembers, senses, and has emotional feeling without any cerebral input. The gut has neurons that can act independently of the brain and learn, remember, and produce chemicals that contribute to our sense of well-being.

    The heart’s neurons communicate with each other simultaneously, while those of the brain do not. In In addition, it is the heart that initiates signals to the brain. The heart thinks and is the primary source of knowledge. This primacy of the heart accounts for why we can intuit what will happen before it happens and before it is witnessed by the senses and the brain.

    As Blaise Pascal observed, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.”

    Most of us have a preference for heart, gut or brain processing. The head person tends to overemphasize rationality. They are not in tune with their feelings and, in fact, tend to think their feelings. They do not say, “I feel this”, they distance themselves by saying “I feel that this is …” The gut person has a more or less constant feeling that life is too much but wants to make life better for others rather than themselves. They need self responsibility. The heart person is a feeling person but they are not good at detachment and therefore tend to have or own everyone else’s feelings instead of their own.

    These types of consciousness – heart, gut, brain and cellular- are different (one could say “tiered” if that is preferred)’ They do not normally interact equally with each other.

    The Franciscan Friar, Richard Rohr, has pointed out that real growth as a spiritual human being is only possible when all modes of ‘reasoning’ – the heart, spine, gut, cells, and head – are employed at the same time. When processes such as meditation are successful in integrating the consciousnesses of the heart, brain, gut and cells, then and only then do they “interact equally with all other consciousness”. At that time, they enable the person to be aware of much more than is apparent to any of the consciousnesses separately.

    • craigweiler
      February 13, 2012

      Ya, good point. I should amend that to say equal terms, not equally. All of the different forms of consciousness act as a system and work with one another without a chain of command.

      • Peter Beacham
        February 13, 2012

        The point is that the different forms of consciousness do NOT act as a system unless they are trained to do so. They can and do act independently of each other. Some people will rely more on the holistic heart consciousness, others, such as rationalists, rely on the incremental, linear consciousness of the brain and others rely mainly on the gut consciousness. It takes training to get these types of consciousness to act together as a system. Then, they not only work together but provide results that are not obtainable in any other way.

        • craigweiler
          February 14, 2012

          Thank you for taking the time to discuss this Peter. Although I don’t think that we’re quite on the same page here, it’s wonderful to find another person who takes such a serious interest in the subject.

          Here’s my two cents: I think we are both arguing the same thing but from different angles. I think that you can train consciousness to form a system. I also think that this is essentially paddling downstream. You’re taking consciousness in a direction that it’s already inclined to go. In fact, I’ll go a step further here. I think that consciousness is ultimately what holds the universe together and systems are being created and dissipating all the time.

          • Peter
            February 14, 2012

            I entirely agree with you that consciousness is what holds the universe together and that systems are being created and dissipating all the time. I would go farther and say that the universe is the product of consciousness, that is, a projection of consciousness. And, every single person has the ability to access that consciousness and use that consciousness to create the universe they think they live in.

  5. Monica
    February 13, 2012

    Hunh. I like. Very interesting concepts…great job! 🙂

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